Credit: ND/NF / Film at Lincoln Center
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

New Directors/New Films 2022: Dispatch 2 — Robe of Gems, Blue Island, Singing in the Wilderness

April 26, 2022

Robe of Gems

Already an acclaimed editor on films such as Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light & Post Tenebras Lux and Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, as well as an actress in the former’s Our Time, Natalia Lopez Gallardo can now add “accomplished writer/director” to her impressive CV. Her debut feature-length film Robe of Gems reveals a carefully calibrated sense of tone and place, as well as a penchant for destabilizing her audience. Here, Gallardo has taken what could have been a familiar tale about Mexican drug traffickers and the ways in which everyday violence affects the lives of regular people and shorn it of virtually all traditional plot signifiers, instead imbuing the film with a free-form, quasi-narrative structure that creates a kind of impressionistic tapestry in lieu of a straightforward story. There are several key characters, each of whom periodically becomes the film’s focus before sliding into the background: there is Isabel (Nailea Norvind), an upper-class woman having marital difficulties and who has taken her pre-teen children to live with her mother; Maria (Antonia Olivares), a longtime maid to Isabel’s family (and, it is implied, a de facto mother-figure to Isabel) who also reluctantly works for a gang of narcos; and Adan (Daniel Garcia), a young, wannabe-gangster, in tow with his mother, Roberta (Aida Roa), a local policewoman trying desperately to keep her son on the straight and narrow. And following all this, it’s revealed that Maria’s sister has gone missing at some point in the past, a mystery that becomes the fulcrum which motivates the actions of all the other characters.

But for all this narrative infrastructure, these relationships are only teased out at first; frankly, it’s often impossible to discern exactly who is doing what and/or to what purpose on a strictly scene-by-scene basis. Gallardo frequently begins and ends sequences with shots of the landscape, rendered with sublime beauty by cinematographer Adrian Durazo, as if to situate the action within a broader context. The densely layered soundtrack frequently shifts to different perspectives within the same scene, starting on one group of people before drifting to another, voices and conversations bleeding into each other. Family gatherings around a pool and the placid surfaces therein recall Lucretia Martel’s La Cienaga and The Holy Girl, two films that bear a certain resemblance to Gallardo’s formal concerns here. If Robe of Gems is at times almost frustratingly opaque, then, once one becomes acclimated to Gallardo’s rhythms, it all begins to create a palpable sense of unease; in these capable hands, the audience becomes as unmoored as the characters. What is clear is that each of these people are trapped by circumstances beyond their control, with the absence of Maria’s sister acting as a synecdoche for all the disappeared victims of narcos violence. Isabel herself eventually becomes a victim of this violence, realized in a startling series of events that Gallardo films in discrete long shot — she’s not interested in the graphic nature of these actions, but in their emotional toll. The film ends with a bold, direct address to the audience followed by a cryptic moment featuring someone burning alive while a group of people stand by and silently observe. Is Gallardo implicating the audience? The answer is unclear, although the director’s sympathy for these people rings loud and clear regardless. The result is nothing less than a dreamy, woozy reverie shot through with an abiding fear of how to make one’s way through this world.

Writer: Daniel Gorman

Credit: New Directors/New FIlms / Film Linc

Blue Island

Chan Tze-woon’s Yellowing was the definitive document of the 2014 Umbrella Movement. At the time, the director was about the same age as the student protestors and had just joined the group, filming what he saw, and building his film out of interviews with a few peers, rather than protest leaders or official documents or news footage. It’s a fascinating look at life at the ground level of a mass demonstration. Now, almost a decade later, we have his follow-up, which mostly centers on the 2019-2020 protests that began in opposition to an extradition bill but quickly expanded into demands for civil rights and free and fair elections in Hong Kong (and in some quarters, independence) and that led to repeated confrontations between protestors and the police.

Rather than the immediate approach of Yellowing, however, Chan situates the current protests within the past fifty or so years of civil disobedience in Hong Kong and China. There are dramatic recreations of actions spanning from Tiananmen Square in 1989 to the leftist anti-colonialist riots in Hong Kong in 1967, to the story of refugees who swam to Hong Kong to escape the Cultural Revolution in the early 1970s. The actors in the recreations are protestors from the present, and they each interact with the people whose stories they are dramatizing on film. The young and old people are mostly in solidarity, we see most of the elders join various marches in 2019, for example, but there’s an interesting split between the veteran of 1967 and his present day partner. 

The ’67 protests were to a large extent inspired by the Cultural Revolution and a desire to rejoin the PRC as a rejection of British colonial rule. The story we see is of a young man who defies the British and insists that he is “Chinese.” The student in the present, however, resists the PRC and insists that he is a “Hongkonger.” The basic impulse is the same: the young refusing to be controlled by the state. But there are significant differences of course: the ’67 protestors were communist, with a specific set of grievances against British colonial capitalism. The recent Hong Kong protests though are almost entirely political, having to do with government process and police procedure (open elections, freedom of speech and assembly, self-determination) and are relatively agnostic on the nature of capitalism (paralleling to some extent the changing nature of the PRC itself). We see that tension in the interaction between the two men: they’re sympathetic to each other, sharing a fear of and disgust with the prison system (where the old man served and where the young man is headed), but they don’t see things the same way: the elder is still a Chinese patriot. Eventually, the elder man warns the younger about the way his friends will change while he’s in prison, how eventually everyone’s commitment to the cause will fade away. He is now a successful businessman and declined to join the current protest movement.

Writer: Sean Gilman

Singing in the Wilderness

Chinese documentary has long been a vibrant and all too underseen area of filmmaking, even before the international recognition of masters like Jia Zhangke and Wang Bing. In reaction to the overt stylizations and lavish filmmaking of the Fifth Generation, which itself rejected the Cultural Revolution’s social realism, the Sixth Generation operated in a neo-realist fashion, skirting the lines of documentary in its use of non-actors and much more quotidian plots. Concurrently, full-fledged documentarians like Wu Wenguang and Yue Jiang began their own even more independent movement. The newest trend appears to be Chinese documentarians who received their education in the United States, making films resolutely about their native land while maintaining a certain distance in form and/or subject matter; Zhu Shengze is the foremost leader of this loose movement at present.

Another member is Chen Dongnan, who makes her feature-length debut with Singing in the Wilderness. The documentary, shot over close to a decade, follows the farming people of the Little Well Village in Fumin County of China’s Yunnan province. They belong to the A-Hmao subset of the Miao people, a historically oppressed and poor minority within China who were pushed to the mountaintops by the Han Chinese majority thousands of years ago. This village, in stark contrast to the vast majority of China, which mostly follows either atheism or folk religions, has embraced Christianity, and their church choir, conducted by Long Guangyuan, has become a backbone of the community. Once Zhang Xiaoming, the county propaganda minister, becomes enraptured by their untrained yet passionate singing, their rise to international fame begins, leading to appearances in Beijing and Lincoln Center, events which challenge the group’s identity in the face of government advertising and mandated subject matter. At the same time, the film follows two choir members as they embark on marriage: Zhang Yaping (referred to simply as Ping in the chyron), who has a volatile relationship with her husband from another, bigger village, and Wang Jiansheng (Sheng) who longs to become a preacher and chafes against the farming lifestyle and his arranged marriage.

Chen cannily ties all of these threads into a larger tapestry of the sweeping nature of China’s modernization and image creation that people like Jia have also captured so astutely. What makes this particular instance special is its specificity, in both the ethnic and religious aspects. Throughout, there is the implicit idea, never directly commented on by the villagers, of a certain exoticization: before their first performance, the villagers, who normally otherwise wear fairly modern clothing, are given traditional garb that emphasizes uniformity and tradition which, as a village elder observes in one of just two talking heads, has already mostly faded away: he sings part of a Miao ethnic song before sadly noting that he’s forgotten the rest of it, and that there are no more people who remember such songs.

Instead, the villagers find their identity in these songs which aren’t in their native language: Singing in the Wilderness, at least in its international releases, probably ought to note the many times where the film switches between A-Hmao and Mandarin: the former is used during most of the conversations between villagers, including in their urban settings, and the latter is used during the semi-common use of voiceover, the singing of songs (secular and non-secular alike), and official announcements; an especially notable recurring theme is Sheng’s use of Mandarin rather than A-Hmao during his sermons, presumably in an effort to be able to minister to a wider region of China than his immediate people.

This tension between the village and the wider world recurs without ever necessarily being used as a cudgel to emphasize the beauty of the former. While it is startling to see Europeans being led through a guided tour of the village, along with almost a shock-cut to promotional footage and a performance of “Mamma Mia” on China’s Got Talent, Chen does not solely rely on such wild extremes, instead carefully drawing out how each incursion relates to the villagers’ predicaments. This especially comes to the fore in the turbulent emotional journeys both Ping and Sheng go on; crucially they are both linked explicitly to Christianity and singing, two pursuits seen as incompatible with the prescribed means of life. Singing in the Wilderness, aside from decrying the corrupt aborted land development that drastically cut down on farming space, doesn’t aim to suggest that one approach is necessarily better than the other, but Chen’s faithful evocation of a resolutely modern type of struggle resounds with a clarity all its own.

Writer: Ryan Swen

Credit: NF/NF / Film at Lincoln Center

Dos Estaciones

A tonal sensibility that has been increasingly co-opted, particularly over the last decade of film festival titles, is that of the Slow Cinema, and viewers will understand that is meant by invoking that term. However, this co-option is not one of congruence with the familiar faculties of this style’s make-up. These new films have siphoned the Brechtian distance of the Slow without the patience. Every particle of these films is knowing semiotical suggestion, whether explicitly pointing toward the internal machinations of characterization or external pronouncements of thematic intention. It’s now less about the utility of time (as seen in the Slow or Durational cinema, proper), but more about the signification of it. Without question, however, it should be noted that these films can, occasionally, be provocative in their idiosyncratic experimentation with such codes, spasmodically instigating genuine profundity in their explorations. But this transparent reformation of the popular aesthetics now-famous filmmakers were once (and still are) known for continues to spread and win awards within our ever-homogenizing aesthetic spheres. It seems there is a telegraphed expectation for how these filmmakers will build their works, as though each festival screening comes with a pamphlet of LEGO instructions, enabling the anticipation of what image we know will follow the last. Juan Pablo González’s Dos Estaciones is a rather unfortunate victim of these modalities.

The film accompanies Maria Garcia (Teresa Sánchez in a infallible performance), the middle-aged owner of a Tequila Factory in the highlands of Jalisco, as she struggles to keep the company afloat in the midst of the entanglement that is the escalating foreign buyout within the sector. The film primarily encircles the complexes between what is interpersonal and what is labour, those closest with Maria also being employees. It’s articulation of these relationships, though, exist and are crystallized through compositional tactics. Persistently is Maria, herself, blocked through the familiar tenacity of the “frame with a frame,” and, whenever she shares screen space with another, compositions become about the bifurcation of two-dimensional space, whether through the capacity to pull focus from a right frame screen-position in the background to a left-frame screen-position in the foreground, or quite simply through splitting the frame with the environs at production’s disposal. This kind of personal isolationism, ultimately supported narratively by the degeneration of the factory, becomes rather stale very quickly. All the anticipated punctures of this formal consistency are played out. Two of the more integral moments being blatant arthouse tropes: characters dancing together and the single, prolonged close-up during Maria’s emotional climax. While all of these very precise images are lensed with beautiful attention to color and mise en scène, that their conceits are played out so frequently — the film never developing its enunciation of these ideas nor the ideas themselves — leaves the work hardened and removed from affect come its coda, which remains charitably expressed only via Sánchez’s august sobriety.

Writer: Zachary Goldkind

Hot in Day, Cold at Night

The South Korean drama Hot in Day, Cold at Night is nothing if not timely in its portrait of an unnamed, twenty-something couple desperately trying to make ends meet, as a rigged system built entirely on capitalistic greed attempts to thwart them at every turn. He (Park Song-yeol) is recovering from a motorcycle accident that has left him unemployed for months, finally able to start looking for steady income; She (Won Hyang-ra) takes various odd jobs while simultaneously attempting to finish grad school. They live in a small, nondescript apartment whose rent is being raised within the month. They can not afford to partake in any sort of extracurricular activities, the majority of their time spent either eating the most basic — i.e. cheapest — foods imaginable or deciding what to eat for their next meal. (Let it be said this movie understands that mealtime is the lifeblood of every relationship, even when the food itself is nothing more than a bag of chips or a pot of rice.) They feel shame at their inability to buy a birthday gift for her mother, magnified by numerous siblings handing over envelopes stuffed with cash, yet their attempts at bettering their situation feel fruitless, as financial demands increase at an alarming rate. Hot in Day, Cold at Night is universal in these themes of financial struggle, how the majority of the world’s population lives paycheck-to-paycheck, one emergency away from homelessness and destitution. Indeed, it’s that inherent relatability that inspires maximum discomfort, with rideshare and food delivery gigs keeping our central couple afloat for only so long, their dignity stripped away by clients who see them as less than human.

Unfortunately, this is the type of film that also has its characters state these struggles out loud, a seeming lack of faith in the material permeating its every moment. Behind the scenes, Hot in Day, Cold at Night is fascinating in that the entire production was basically a two-person enterprise, with leads Song-yeol and Hyang-ra also taking on the duties of directing, writing, editing, and cinematography. An impressive undertaking, but it’s too bad their skills never rise above basic competence, the movie adopting a point-and-shoot style that might be more tolerable if the compositions were interesting in the slightest. The editing, meanwhile, leaves plenty to be desired, as numerous scenes go on for several beats too long before awkwardly cutting to whatever mundane shot the filmmakers feel best matches — in most cases, they do not. It would be easy to argue that the unimaginative filmmaking on display is indeed intentional, its lack of frills lending authenticity to the proceedings, but that seems like a bit of a cop-out, especially when filmmakers like Mike Leigh and Lynn Shelton have spent their careers bringing true artistry to chronicling the miserablist nature of everyday life. The film also keeps teasing the viewer with potential drama — the procuring of a personal loan from two shady individuals who make deals out of a mid-level Sedan and demand the names and addresses of immediate family members is a highlight — but never follows through, again making the proceedings potentially more realistic but also dramatically inert. And the whole thing is incredibly repetitious, as the film keeps presenting potential financial opportunities for the couple, only to snatch them away minutes later. Ultimately, Hot in Day, Cold at Night has nothing new or interesting to say about the shackles of capitalism or humanity in general. It turns out people are awful, and doing the right thing will only lead to your own downfall. That type of cynicism isn’t necessarily unwarranted, but it is also preaching to the choir at this point, an exercise in futility.

Writer: Steven Warner