Poupelle of Chimney Town
At this point, it’s fairly useless to ascribe Studio Ghibli qualities to any new anime release, so diluted have such comparisons become, but there’s an undeniable touch of that familiar eco fabulism to Studio 4°C’s latest, Poupelle of Chimney Town. Based on a children’s picture book from comedian cum illustrator Akihiro Nishino, and directed by first-timer Yusuke Hirota — who cut his teeth in VFX and animation work for the past two decades — the film starts out gleefully unhinged, with an absolute bugfuck sequence in which a big pumpkin, a giant pair of lips with bat wings attached, and a bunch of sea creature things sing a maniacal Halloween song about hiding in kids’ baths and sharpening their teeth that would feel at home in a carnival funhouse. But almost as soon as this trippy digression ends, the film veers sharply into uniformly wholesome territory, abandoning any personality on its way to a by-numbers sum portrait of never giving up on your dreams, amidst other such analogous platitudes. In fairness, Poupelle is a distinctly child-facing film, certainly more so than Studio 4°C’s previous international successes: the punk-inflected Tekkonkinkreet and supernatural fantasy Children of the Sea (and that’s to say nothing of the studio’s collaborative work, such as the delightfully dark and weird Birdboy: The Forgotten Children).
It’s before the narrative proper sets in that one is teased with the promise of Ghibli-adjacent cli-fi storytelling: viewers are immediately dropped into Chimney Town, a steampunkish place with chugging factories and billowing smokestacks, and a backstory about how no one has ever seen — or, indeed, even believes in — the stars for the perpetual penumbra of smog hanging above. (The fixation on this plot point is so present that it wouldn’t be surprising if the film’s conception was as an adaptation of Van Gogh’s famous quote: “I know nothing with any certainty but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”) Add to that setting the film’s little lead, a young, fatherless boy named Lubicchi who works for a guild of chimney sweeps and who has a distinct Dickensian, ragamuffin quality; equipped as he is with a top hat, bowtie, and suspenders, he more accurately resembles a magician in training. He’s a lonely dreamer, but after he meets Garbage Man — who is a sentient, ambling thing made of, well, garbage, including a bracelet brain (this is more fun to describe than to experience) — and affectionately re-dubs him Poupelle Halloween, he finds that he has courage, purpose, and a new father figure (the whole thing doesn’t feel too far away from Onward’s general shape).
All of that to say, Poupelle is a film firmly rooted in even pre-tween territory, and a certain amount of latitude is fair for flicks so fundamentally orchestrated for wide-eyed youngsters. But even taking that into account, Hirota’s film is an across-the-board hodgepodge with little cogency of theme, thought, or visual. The animation work is the most notable offender; Poupelle is the first fully-3D effort from the studio, and it’s a profound work in progress. Scenes’ backgrounds are richly detailed and textured, effectively setting a world that is at once old-timey and graced with a neon tinge recalling more tech-centric environs. But these compositions are frequently in stark contrast with foregrounded characters and action, which take far more imprecise form, inflecting the whole thing with a sheen of artificiality; this effect, alongside the sheer saturation of color, makes the film look far more like an extended cut scene from a children’s educational game than animated cinema. And still other sequences seem to attempt to replicate 2D or add texture to the 3D’s softness, which always looks sloppy, and sometimes even laggy. Poupelle’s themes are similarly muddled and mishmashed, with its early nods at environmental critique giving way, without any sustained rationale, to notions of anti-knowledge, isolationism, and even economic philosophy. And the film’s musical choices follow this pattern, with a wind- and string-heavy score interrupted throughout by a few, deeply on-the-nose, melancholy pop numbers that accompany montages meant to move the film along. But this particular inane facet means that at least Poupelle of Chimney Down ends on a high-note, a hilariously somber song soundtracking the end credits: “He came on Halloween night. / A man made of garbage, the Garbage Man. / Chimney Town is in a panic. / He smells awful.” The Garbage Man isn’t the only thing here that stinks.
Writer: Luke Gorham
In 1951, the Minamata-based Chisso corporation was one of Japan’s leading producers of acetaldehyde, a then in-demand chemical compound that the company had begun to synthesize using a mercury sulfate catalyst. This production method would make Chisso very rich and the city of Minamata very dependent on the company to keep the economy in motion, but it would soon become clear that the creation of acetaldehyde wasn’t a purely harmless process. In 1956, what would come to be known as Minamata disease was discovered to have afflicted a number of people living in fishing communities by the city’s bay. Those stricken by the illness rapidly lost control over motor functions (many losing the ability to walk and speak), became prone to convulsions, and experienced severe nerve damage and general loss of sensation across the entire body. It became clear fairly quickly that the disease was the result of some kind of food poisoning affecting local fish and shellfish, and that Chisso’s wastewater runoff was the source, but it wouldn’t be until 1959 that it was deduced that Minamata disease was specifically caused by high levels of exposure to methylmercury, a byproduct of acetaldehyde production that was being knowingly dumped into a harbor that fed directly into Minamata bay and the Shiranui Sea.
It’s taken longer still for the victims of the Chisso corporation to receive proper compensation for the company’s violent negligence, with many still fighting to receive financial reparations and apologies from both the company and local government to this day. Countless others remain totally unrecognized as suffering from Minamata disease, and wage legal battles with the Kumamoto governing administration simply to be officially classified as such (Chisso has used their influence to make the legal requirements for receiving Minamata-related benefits unrealistically strict and inflexible). In 1971, documentarian Noriaki Tsuchimoto released Minamata: The Victims and Their World, which became the first in a career-long series of nonfiction films that gave voice to the ostracized victims and sought to provide a comprehensive picture of the systemic failings that allowed the disease to proliferate. Tsuchimoto passed on in 2008, leaving a gap in coverage of the still-struggling Minamata activists that has now been filled by Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi, the husband-wife director/producer team (respectively) probably most famous in the U.S. for 1987’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On.
This latest collaboration is their longest yet, the three-part, 372-minute Minamata Mandala, which had its world premiere last July at The Shanghai International Film Festival. Hara is the ideal filmmaker for this material, his concise body of nonfiction film work geared towards portraits of activists and dissidents whose lives and work challenge the hypocrisies and contradictions built into societal infrastructure. Minamata Mandala has its share of commonalities with previous Hara films, like his debut feature Goodbye CP (a portrait of the domestic life of a man living with cerebral palsy) and the recent Sennan Asbestos Disaster, a 215-minute documentary detailing an 8 ½-year lawsuit against the state to compensate victims exposed to asbestos in textile factories. Minamata Mandala ends up pulling these two ideas together, using its six hours to cover courtroom struggle, scientific research, and human interest in equal measure. Drawing from 15 years worth of footage, Hara is able to assess origins and long-standing ramifications of the Minamata bay poisoning with a rare thoroughness that leaves equal room for both righteous courtroom outrage and quiet character study. These latter moments tend to be where Minamata Mandala shines brightest, carried by Hara’s talents as an interviewer. Confidently probing, but never mean-spirited or judgemental, Hara lands a number of astounding scenes organically with his thoughtful lines of questioning, getting details of Minamata patients’ dating lives in one moment, while discussing death in candid, unsentimental terms with aged activists in another (Part three contains a particularly memorable stand off with a folk musician that really highlights Hara’s singular interview instincts). These latter discussions take on an added grimness as Minamata Mandala draws to a close without a clear conclusion, some victories, other defeats, new lawsuits having to be filed… Many of those suffering from Minamata disease will never see justice, but continue to fight and protest as part of an ongoing collective struggle that sadly must extend beyond one lifetime. Minamata Mandala encapsulates this unwieldy spectrum of emotion with a casual elegance and approachable form, superficially daunting, but in actuality, universally compelling.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
Bottled Songs 1-4
Chloe Galibert-Laine and Kevin B. Lee’s Bottled Songs 1-4 is an epistolary essay film in which the duo exchange four video letters, with each filmmaker authoring two segments apiece, that interrogate the audio/visual techniques of assorted terrorist propaganda videos, ranging from low res phone uploads to professionally produced feature-length projects. Jumping off from and expanding upon Lee’s own 2014 Transformers: The Premake, a self-described “desktop documentary” that invigorated the largely genre-bound Screenlife gimmick with a healthy dose of Harun Farocki and Chris Marker, he and Galibert-Laine deconstruct the way various ISIS YouTube videos utilize the formal qualities of traditional filmed entertainment to maximize the effectiveness of their messaging. In the first section, Galibert-Laine describes a video that she has been obsessed with for years, a seemingly simple (if brutal) cell phone video that shows ISIS fighters marching a column of prisoners through the desert until they are eventually summarily executed. As she points out, there are multiple cameras visible in the sequence, being wielded by various militants, which leads to the obvious question of why this particular shot, from this particular angle? What are the implications of these specific choices?
The second section finds Lee deconstructing a feature-length ISIS film, how it functions as myth-making, and its use of sophisticated transitions between scenes that mimic action film iconography-slow motion, different kinds of dissolves, and even special effects. In the third section, Galibert-Laine focuses on an ISIL “superstar,” a photogenic young man who appears across numerous clips and videos and takes on a kind of star-persona aura. Curious as to who he really is, she goes down an internet rabbit hole investigating his various roles and if it’s possible to get a sense of the real person behind them. Lee returns with the fourth segment, as he views faux-news segments involving British journalist John Cantlie; Cantlie was kidnapped by terrorists and now fronts (against his will, seemingly) various propaganda videos, his presence imbuing them with a manufactured patina of journalistic integrity. It’s a fascinating menagerie of ideas and techniques, all displayed via screens that pile up layers upon layers of digital information — YouTube videos, google searches, text windows, news websites, digital editing programs, and so on — that all overlap and represent physical labor of a sort on the part of the filmmakers. The proliferation of screens within screens takes on some of the formal properties of the edit, while the filmmaker’s letters to each other – typed out onscreen as well as narrated – reveal the hand of the author in curious ways. Far from being merely an academic exercise, although it would be very useful as a pedagogical tool, Bottled Songs 1-4 allows for all manner of discursive inquiry, each segment taking on some of the mimetic qualities of wiling away an afternoon on the internet. It’s a process of linkages, some more intuitive than others, that taken together create a portrait of 21st century images and how we manage them. Both an ontological and epistemological project, the film ends with a URL for viewers to submit other videos, suggesting the possibility of an endless series of Songs. It’s an important project, even if one senses that we’ll never really be able to make sense of this avalanche of digitized visual information. Certainly, Lee remains one of our most important working filmmakers.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Accidental Luxuriance of the Translucent Watery Rebus
Far more than its rather nonsensical title and unconventional mix of animation styles, the general plot synopsis of Accidental Luxuriance of the Translucent Watery Rebus may help to clarify the feature-length work’s narrative and formal elusiveness. There’s a man, named Martin, who works for a shady totalitarian organization, doing… something that’s probably not on the up and up (though this is never made clear), all until he’s on the run from said organization for… some vague reason (also never revealed) and joins up with a conceptual artisan named Sara, who’s also against this institution because… of another ambiguous reason. Maybe they really dislike post-modern art? Point being, the particulars of why anything is happening at any given point is never elaborated on, which is ultimately in service of director Dalibor Barić’s overall approach: the characters strictly serve as specific genre signifiers, ones that can be represented by rotoscoped ’40s noir B-flicks and Golden Age comics instead of actual indexical humans. They’re introduced and briefly established, but are seldom elaborated on; all one can parse out is that they continue to fall deeper and deeper into a web of monolithic bureaucracy, which becomes a maddening game that would make even Kafka tear his hair out. Again, little of this adds up to much in the long run: as we’re assured from the press notes “maybe none of this is true,” which only hammers home how little one should be invested in the story aspects of anything that occurs here. Considering how much monotone voice-over hangs over the film, actively forcing viewers to engage with its labyrinthine, but aimless plot, this is a bit of a problem.
While Barić’s techniques are hardly revolutionary, or even that accomplished — there are some numblingly literal edits indebted to visualizing non-diegetic music cues that come off as trite cleverness — he still has an eye for a color, though this in turn is usually outweighed by either his tedious dialogue or his grating score. (He’s credited here as a director, writer, editor, composer, and animator, which means there was nobody around to ever say “no” to anything.) The tone fluctuates between somber and wryly comedic, though usually with little success or even any real care; like the drama itself, its shifts often feel badly improvised. The film is a rancid mixture of conflicting, almost inherently oppositional aesthetic elements; it seems uncertain of what it’s attempting other than occasional weirdness. Granted, it is able to achieve this in slight doses (usually for five-minute blocks) before timidly maneuvering into another loosely connected segment. (Perhaps reconstructing Accidental Luxuriance as an omnibus rather than a long-form work would resolve some of its aforementioned pacing issues.) But after a while, these passages begin to drag, and no amount of sheer creative lunacy can forestall the lethargy that begins to set in. Maybe everything we see is indeed a lie. That would make it easier to chalk this up to simply not mattering all that much in the end.
Writer: Paul Attard
The Belly of the Sea
Currently on display in all of its titanic glory at the Louvre, Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa is a peculiar masterwork. Depicting one of the most horrific humanitarian tragedies at the time of its production, Géricault’s masterful strokes and command of movement offer a glimpse into the barbarity and cruelty of the social climate and pursuit of survival within a chaotic raft, lost at sea. Since the inception of the painting, many have tried to replicate the hellish incident in all of this barbaric glory. Yet, even with newly applied contemporary connotations, many artists tend to forget the exploitative drawbacks when depicting a human tragedy in a different medium. What may translate within a beautifully constructed painting, doesn’t always work as a piece of literature, music — or in our current situation, a film.
Conceptually, Agustí Villaronga’s The Belly of the Sea offers a unique narrative angle of the aforementioned tragedy: the framing device of an investigative hearing. Through forced narration and other verbal forms of documentation, Villaronga constructs a nonlinear account of the dehumanizing experience that left 147 survivors trapped onto a paltry raft. Yet what is particularly staggering about The Belly of the Sea is its stylistic indecisiveness. Constantly alternating perspectives and displaying aesthetic inconsistencies, the film creates a sense of artificiality, the sense of a work more interested in establishing a disorienting experience, over analyzing the pre-established emotional journeys of its two core characters. At one point even, Villaronga attempts to draw a comparison between the ongoing refugee crisis and the film’s recounted events, demonstrating little self-awareness or even depth in the process.The end result is a film with very little payoff, its main strength being imagery that sporadically provokes a sense of dread and sea-stricken malady. Occasionally, Villaronga cleverly intercuts footage shot on location with more minimalist sets which that provides a sense of claustrophobia and anxiety. But even with these occasionally staggering scenes, the rest of Villaronga’s tortuous 74-minute historical epic fails to even remotely engage its viewer. There’s nothing particularly insightful about The Belly of the Sea. When it comes to a tragedy that’s already been covered endlessly through a tapestry of different mediums over the past couple centuries, artists should finally take note and leave the restless victims of the shipwreck of the frigate La Méduse alone for the time being.
Writer: David Cuevas
Broadcasting its ambitious scope with its borrowed title, Rita Hui Nga Shu’s Decameron sets out to encapsulate the tenor of current day Hong Kong following a year of COVID lockdown and mass protest against the Chinese government’s significant influence over the semi-autonomous nation. Hui spins out a loose, free-floating narrative that moves between the hyper-recent and matters of historical record, eventually forming a broad essay, albeit one that favors vibes over explicit rhetoric.
That’s not to say that Decameron is without a specific thesis, but rather that this isn’t its primary fixation. Early on, the film introduces archival footage of Hong Kong’s final British Governor Chris Patten issuing his patronizing 1997 farewell speech, framed in a small square suggesting the perspective of a camera phone. Patten’s talk of the wonderful infrastructure installed by the British is soon contrasted with details of the 1894 Hong Kong Plague, which would persist for 35 years and claim over 20,000 lives, the result of the colonial government forcing the Hong Kong citizenry into cruel, unhygienic living conditions. This naturally flows into comparisons to the Chinese government’s handling of the COVID epidemic in 2021, establishing a general timeline of imperialist abuses exacted against Hong Kong, the bleak inevitabilities of colonialist rule that can only be overcome through democratic self governance, Hui implies. These sequences give context for the ideological leanings of the filmmakers, but they don’t really represent Decameron’s aesthetic otherwise, a foundation upon which much meandering verite documentary is built atop of.
The film’s other strands blend together scenes of domestic and work life in post-Covid Hong Kong, along with seemingly surreptitiously recorded protest footage, capturing the sounds and fleeting images of police brutality (the small 1:1 camera phone aspect ratio a frequently used tool). There’s also footage of alternative, performance/art-based activism used to stir up public conversation where the government enforces silence, the most intriguing of which is a fraught, likely staged conflict between one such activist and the notorious murderer Chan Tong-kai whose crime in part inspired the 2019 Hong Kong extradition bill that set off the initial wave of protests. It’s a lot to throw at an audience, and at times Hui feels as if she’s editing on instinct, with unpronounced transitions bearing out indistinct boundaries between each narrative. The overall effect is a bit scattered, perhaps as broad and reaching as Boccaccio’s canonical novel, but without a parallel focus or intricacy. Instead, Decameron aims to sum up the moment it depicts by depicting a lot of it, which makes for a pretty egalitarian, well-rounded essay film, but not always an engaging one. Hui has captured an immediate, on-the-ground perspective of 2020/2021 Hong Kong, with broader interrogation saved for history (U.S. involvement goes untouched). Decameron offers a maybe too-quick sketch of this moment, though done so with intention and an interesting formal hook, with the spontaneity and passion behind the production quite apparent.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux