Wednesday, August 09, 2006

impressions of a festival

(Note: I'm sorry for the unformatted version of this which ended up here earlier - Blogger was being very difficult today.)

This was the second consecutive year when I actively attended (i.e. saw 25+ films in the two weeks) the Auckland International Film Festival, without taking any time off work. Naturally, that means having to miss out on some of the supposedly-good stuff (most regrettably, Avi Mograbi's Avenge But One of My Two Eyes, Maurice Pialat's Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble, Ashim Ahluwalia's John and Jane, and Shin Dong-il's Host & Guest), but, at the end, I think I'm satisfied with what I managed to see, all things considered. Vague impressions of some of the films I caught follow - mostly on films I liked.

Playing catch-up with films from the past year: I finally saw Philippe Garrel's dizzying masterpiece, Les Amants réguliers (which, by nature, is a film of multiple impressionistic highlights, one of which involves Clotilde Hesme silently crying in front of the camera in an undisturbed take, recalling the similar scene from Warhol's Chelsea Girls when Nico breaks down in front of the camera), and also what might be Hou Hsiao-hsien's best film since Goodbye South, Goodbye - his Three Times - which gracefully sways from the blissed-out romanticism of a 90s Wong Kar-wai film (not to mention, an exquisite, cautious tenderness distinctive of 80s Hou), to a silent, shimmering mood piece recalling Flowers of Shanghai and Mizoguchi, to an altogether jarringly dis-intimate and immediate final segment, when the smoke thickens and the performers (super-hot duo of Shu Qi and Chang Chen) are beginning to disappear into it. Characters communicate with each other increasingly with text rather than spoken words, seemingly drifting apart even when they come together, as informed by Hou's meandering long takes which often breaks space into layers and isolates each character into it (such as the scene when Shu Qi sings in the bar with Chan taking her close-ups, comparable in its movement and texture to the scene when Boyan 'molds' Mélania during her dance in Grandrieux's La Vie nouvelle), each shot creating its own personal memory and history.

Two small films from the Berlinale earlier this year, which should not be allowed to disappear: The lonely image of a drunken man dancing to Robbie Williams' 'Feel' is held in a long take, before an extramarital romance develops, morphing calmness into violence in the deeply romantic bedtime story that is Valeska Grisebach's Sehnsucht (/Longing). And Lucian Pintilie's Tertium non datur, a lovably absurdist mix of minimalism and wine, politics and mathematics, the logical and psychological - probably best approached with zero prior knowledge of its narrative. Both are remarkably simple films, especially Grisebach's feature-length debut, which has a deliberate sense of awkwardness about it (not least because of the non-professional performers) that only intensifies as the film progresses, its long silences and inarticulate gestures carrying the weight of the characters' personal crises, its symmetrical use of two suicide attempts establishing Fate as a silent protagonist.

A program of three digital short films included Apichatpong Weerasethakul's DV project from last year, Worldly Desires, along with Abbas Kiarostami's Roads of Kiarostami and Victor Kosakovsky's Svyato. Weerasethakul's film was the easily the strongest of the three. I didn't care much for Svyato, which is essentially a protracted shot of the director's titular two-year old son and his reaction upon seeing a mirror image of himself for the first time - cute for the first two minutes but I'm really not sure of its extension to 40-something minutes of baby-talk/-walk. As for the Kiarostami - I can admire his photography and unforced metaphors about the vulnerability of nature (and the vulnerability of images of nature - to interpretation), but sadly, I found his own unnecessarily explicit exposition to be self-defeatist and, well, a little too obvious (I'll admit to being perplexed by the entire project). The 42-minute Worldly Desires, also a meta-excursion into its maker's own recurring 'melodic passage' (the jungle is to Weerasethakul what the road is to Kiarostami, etc.) in the form of an experimental landscape film, captures the mysterious essence of Weerasethakul's previous two narrative features and creates avenues of excursion for both the maker and the spectator. There are fragments of sound (crickets chirping, the crushing of dead leaves) and impressions of discohesive images (a man dancing on the road, Joe discussing a shot with his cameramen, etc.) but a relationship emerges: Two film shoots (by the same crew - Joe's assistant 'directing') are happening in a forest in Thailand: a soap opera by the day (during which an eloped couple seek a mythical tree) and a music video by the night (the lyrics of the song not as innocent as it first seems), both getting linked by image and sound to strangely disturbing results. Of course, there is the other film shoot, with Joe invisibly filming his assistant's direction, the two shoots inextricably linked and further compounding the nature of the images we're seeing, but the centre of the film is the dense jungle - Joe's melodic passage - which still resists sheer interpretation, thank God.

Staying with the meta - I enjoyed Mitsuo Yanagimachi's playful, cinephilic, eccentric Who's Camus Anyway?, which references Altman, Godard, Truffaut, Visconti, and Resnais (among others) in camera movement and choreography, but goes on to develop its own tensions between the fictional and the real. More warped is Caveh Zahedi's I Am A Sex Addict, which continues to expand upon Zahedi's interesting persona (which I first encountered in In the Bathtub of the World) in an inventive and resourceful re-enactment of Zahedi's addiction to prostitutes during the 80s, the entire film narrated by an intermittently on-screen Zahedi as guests arrive and wait in the hall next door for his wedding to Mandy, who was fought over, fought with, clung to, in Bathtub. His films remind me of Ross McElwee's documentaries (this one is kinda reminiscent of Sherman's March), who also explores his relationships/obsessions/woundings in a similarly self-deprecating manner, with an honesty that is often both hilarious and moving. (Darren at Long Pauses has a great essay on the film, which explores the tonal variations in the 'narrative'.) Another film which seemed to dissolve the borders between fiction and documentary is Liu Jiayin's Oxhide (which I saw a month ago on a screener - I'm told the festival projected a shitty beta-SP anyway), one of the highlights of the festival and surely one of the most striking debuts of the past couple of years. I wrote a capsule on it here (the title and the paragraph gap are not mine, by the way), and would like to reiterate that the dry humour and familial affection that is really at the heart of the film transcends the seemingly intimidating formalism (23 static shots in Liu's claustrophobic apartment - on DV - capturing 'empty' space and whatever sound or movement happens to enter the frame). Sadly, this film seems to have disappeared off the festival circuit with only a few isolated exclamations of its greatness.

Of the six or so documentaries I saw, Philip Gröning's majestic Into Great Silence stands out among the others. With no narration and only fragments of speech and echoes of footsteps heard during its 162 minutes, its images of the day-to-day life of reclusive monks of the Grande Chartreuse Monastery in the French Alps, make the spectator part of the depicted isolationism and boredom and ritualistic duty. The film repeats the routine of the silent monks (the ringing of bells, tending to the gardens, offering prayers, cooking and consuming food, nocturnal Gregorian chanting, weekly shaving of their heads, etc.), and slowly evolves into a hypnotic study of the silence of its subject, comparable to the arresting contemplation of a Spiritual Voices (Sokurov, 1995) or a Confession (Sokurov, 1998). Similarly, Michael Glawogger's Herzogian, latitude-spanning beast, Workingman's Death (:Five Portraits of Work in the 21st Century), lends beauty, through its striking compositions, to some of the world's most unattractive jobs. The absence of narration gives the film an imagistic dominance as it proceeds to document - sans any false glorification - how these beings wilfully surrender their bodies to perpetual disintegration to survive. Such aesthetic distance only brings us closer to the subject. (A clearer understanding of the film's dialectic is laid out by the last paragraph of this essay on the film, by a Pamela Biénzobas.)

Harutyun Khachatryan's Armenian documentary/travelogue, Return of the Poet, also devoid of any narration, evokes the presence of a place (rural Armenia) by taking the spectator directly into its landscape of incidental rituals, its sights and sounds, its people and fauna, with very occasional emphatically recited poetry of 19th century Armenian poet, Ashugh Jivani. It was a trying film to see at the end of a very long day, but I can appreciate it in retrospect. Also, a special mention to Gary Tarn's quasi-Mekasian 'experimental documentary', Black Sun, which while not essential viewing, is still beautiful to behold - a gorgeous flow of distorted imagery, of the narrator's places of visitations, as estimatedly assembled/edited by Tarn (who also provides the lush score), and accompanied by Hugues de Montalembert's feature-length narration of how his perceptions on life and 'seeing' changed after an attack that left him blinded. No other film in the festival was as expansive as Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar's nearly four-hour-long A Lion in the House, at least half of during which I was fiercely battling to hold back the tears. Simplistically, it can be said to be a document of the passing of time and imminent death (like Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu or Pialat's masterful La Gueule ouverte, seen within the same week), but it's much broader than that description and ultimately unclassifiable. A build-up of 'small' incidents and gestures (as the film follows the central five children dying of cancer, along with their unraveling families) that escalate into the complex emotional dynamics of life, as any aesthetic is crushed by the totality of existence. I don't think I'll ever see it again.

(And because this is getting unbelievably long-winded, I'll just list the others...)

Others I liked, not discussed above: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Puiu), Battle in Heaven (Reygadas), follows a natural progression after Japón and one that is surely worthy of further viewings, Offside (Panahi), In Between Days (So Yong Kim), Mary (Ferrara), Police Beat (Trevor Robinson), 12:08 East of Bucharest + Liviu's Dream (Corneliu Porumboiu), and much of The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry), which is an extension of his music videos, especially recalling his videos for Bjork's 'Bachelorette' and The Chemical Brothers' 'Let Forever Be' (my favourite Gondry video). Still, my recent-Gondry-film of choice would be the exuberant, Dave Chappelle's Block Party, where the recognisably Gondrian pleasures are down-to-earth.

Disappointed by, or mostly neutral on: Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer), The New World (Malick), The Wind that Shakes the Barley (Loach), Lunacy (Svankmajer), The Forsaken Land (Vimukthi Jayasundhara), Drawing Restraint 9 (Matthew Barney), Vers le sud (Cantet).

The film itself may be a forgettably slight embodiment of pansexual paradisial bliss, but special mention goes to Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell) for providing one of the most memorable scenes of the entire festival (no, not the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner into bodily orifices during the gang-bang scene): the very YouTube-able moment when Sook-Yin Lee frantically jerks out an out-of-control, vibrating egg from her vagina and madly, vainly, attempts to crush it with a wooden decorative leg torn off the walls of the Shortbus! I could almost tolerate the film again for this gloriously insane moment alone.


Blogger Ouyang Feng said...

thank you very much for your impressions!
Three Times was to me one of the best of 2005, and I agree Shu Qi and Chang Chen were perfect.
Can't wait to see some of the others you mentioned!

11:35 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Wonderful impressions, suggestions, recommendations! Thanks for the reportage.

5:32 PM  

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