Wednesday, October 27, 2010


My review for A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is now up on In Review Online.

Although I really hate to say it, this film is a mess. I saw A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop before I headed off to Vancouver, and the more I think about it (and compare it to some of the amazing films I've seen in the past couple of weeks) the more I'm convinced that this crazy idea to remake Blood Simple into a Chinese period piece is just that: crazy. The unfortunate component to slamming this film is that Zhang is no slouch and has brought a well crafted film to the table.

(This poster speaks louder than words. Even when I look at it, I wonder "What is going on!?" If it seems like it has a Stephen Chow/Chinese Odyssey element to it, that is not far off the mark.) Read here.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Yael Hersonski's A FILM UNFINISHED (2010)

My review of A Film Unfinished is up at In Review Online.

It's strange how a reiteration of things you already know can be so powerful. A Film Unfinished is just such a documentary. It doesn't reveal anything new or anything we didn't already know about the Nazis. However, this close inspection of a propaganda film shot in the Warsaw Ghetto in those tenuous months in mid-1942, sits in the chest like a rock. As quoted on the film's website by director Yael Hersonski: "A Film Unfinished first emerged out of my theoretical preoccupation with the notion of the 'archive', and the unique nature of the witnessing it bears." This documentary starts with theory and curiosity but is finished with a great deal of compassion. A fascinating and heartbreaking film.

I think this may have played in the Twin Cities while I was out of town. It will likely come out on DVD early next year.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Casey Affleck's I'M STILL HERE (2010)

My review for Casey Affleck's I'm Still Here is up on In Review Online. If you could award prizes for an enduring performance, Joaquin Phoenix would surely win. However, my disappointment in Affleck's admission of the hoax continues to grow. I saw the film before he let the cat out the bag, and most of my enjoyment and observations are reliant on the absurd is-it-real-or-not debate. Reports continue to flood in: Letterman knew about it, Paltrow knew about it and on and on, like they all want a pat on the back. I'm Still Here is an incredibly funny film, and I could care less if Phoenix's sincerity is any more or less than his sincerity for Leonard Kraditor or Johnny Cash.

(I'm also having the worst brain fart on the title, writing I'm Not Here almost every time without fail - also an apropos title!)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Special Film Festival Edition of Cinema Shanty Tomorrow on KFAI

KFAI Weekly News turns the airwaves over to the Cinema Shanty crew for a special film festival edition tomorrow 10/22 from 9-10am! Hosts Peter Schilling, Jim Brunzell, Erik McClanahan and I will dish about recent film festival viewings and more!

Erik and I were recently at the Vancouver International Film Festival, and Jim just returned from the Chicago International Film Festival. We are also pleased to have Twin Cities film icon and recent news-maker Al Milgrom on to talk about the Toronto International Film Festival.

Tune in live or online to hear about our raves and faves, and what might and might not make it to Twin Cities theaters!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Olivier Assayas at the Walker Art Center

Wednesday night the Walker Art Center hosts Olivier Assayas, one of the most interesting auteurs in contemporary film. But not the kind of stodgy auteur used to prop up theories and didactic criticism—Assayas is a new breed of auteur dedicated to global citizenship and shapeshifting genres. The dialogue, Wednesday night at 8pm with Kent Jones, comes right in the middle of an eleven film retrospective that wraps up with Assayas' new five-hour film Carlos at the end of the month. Assayas is a film critic in his own right and should offer a lively discussion. I'll be front and center.

Monday, October 18, 2010

VIFF 2010: From top to bottom.

This has been a long time coming, but here is a list of all the films I saw in Vancouver very loosely ranked from best to worst. Of course on any given day, the films could shift around a little, but not by much. (This is especially true for the top 14 films that I admire and adore equally.) On the other hand, it is only the last two films on the list that I found completely awful with the rest having at least one or two redeeming factors.

  1. Winter Vacation d. Li Hongqi (China)
  2. Mundane History d. Anocha Suwichakornpong (Thai)
  3. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives d. Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thai)
  4. Certified Copy d. Abbas Kiarostami (France)
  5. Another Year d. Mike Leigh (UK)
  6. Karamay d. Xu Xin (China)
  7. I Wish I Knew d. Jia Zhangke (China)
  8. Aurora d. Cristi Puiu (Romania)
  9. Hahaha d. Hong Sangsoo (S Korea)
  10. End of Animal d. Jo Sung-hee (S Korea)
  11. Fortune Teller d. Xu Tong (China)
  12. Cold Fish d. Shion Sono (Jpn)
  13. Poetry d. Lee Changdong (S Korea)
  14. Don't Be Afraid Bi! d. Phan Dang Di (Vietnam)
  15. Mysteries of Lisbon d. Raúl Ruiz (Spain)
  16. Leap Year d. Michael Rowe (Mexico)
  17. Red Dragonflies d. Liao Jiekai (Singapore)
  18. Rumination d. Xu Ruotao (China)
  19. Chassis d. Adolfo Alix Jr. (Philippines)
  20. The Fourth Portrait d. Chung Mong-hong (Taiwan)
  21. Good Morning to the World d. Saturo Hirohara (Jpn)
  22. The High Life d. Zhao Dayong (China)
  23. Gallants d. Derek Kwok, Clement Cheng (HK)
  24. The Tiger Factory d. Woo Ming Jin (Malaysia)
  25. Thomas Mao d. Zhu Wen (China)
  26. R d. Michael Noer, Tobias Lindholm (Denmark)
  27. The Robber d. Benjamin Heisenberg (Austria)
  28. Sampaguita, National Flower d. Francis X Pasion (Philippines)
  29. Armadillo d. Janus Metz (Denmark)
  30. Oki's Movie d. Hong Sangsoo (S Korea)
  31. The Sleeping Beauty d. Catherine Breillat (France)
  32. The Drunkard d. Freddie Wong (HK)
  33. The Man from Nowhere d. Lee Jeong-beom (S Korea)
  34. 108 d. Renate Costa (Spain)
  35. Rubber d. Quentin Dupieux (France/USA)
  36. Peace d. Soda Kazuhiro (Jpn)
  37. Get Out of the Car d. Thom Andersen (US)
  38. Sawako Decides d. Ishii Yuya (Jpn)
  39. Echoes of the Rainbow d. Alex Law (HK)
  40. Insects in the Backyard d. Tanwarin Sukkhapisit (Thai)
  41. Heartbeats d. Xavier Dolan (Canada)
  42. Incendies d. Denis Villeneuve (Canada)
  43. Aftershock d. Feng Xiaogang(China)
  44. Seven Days in Heaven d. Wang Yu-lin, Essay Liu (Taiwan)
  45. The Strange Case of Angelica d. Manoel de Oliveira (Portugal)
  46. The Red Chapel d. Mads Brugger (Denmark)
  47. Pinoy Sunday d. Ho Wi Ding (Taiwan)
  48. Surviving Life d. Jan Svankmajer (Czech)
  49. Merry-Go-Round d. Yan Yan Mak, Clement Cheng (HK)
  50. Of Love and Other Demons d. Hilda Hildalgo (Costa Rica/Columbia)
  51. Ugly Duckling d. Garri Bardin (France/Russia)
  52. Repeaters d. Carl Bessai (Canada)
  53. Metamorphosis d. Lee Samchil (S Korea)
  54. LA Zombie d. Bruce LaBruce (US)
That's a lot of frackin' movies. Can't wait to do it again!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

VIFF: Day 12

Catching up is so hard to do...

The Robber (2010)
Benjamin Heisenberg

Marathon runners take note: if you want to give your heart rate monitor a run for its money and put a little spark in your training regiment, try robbing banks. Benjamin Heisenberg new film is a tense thriller that rides a wave perpetuated by a true story. Based on an Austrian man who had a taste for robbing banks and a talent for running marathons, The Robber capitalizes on this unique character study with a little dramatic magic. We first meet Johann as he is finishing up his prison sentence. Running circles around a small prison yard, he is ordered inside along with the rest of the inmates only to continue running on a treadmill he has in his cell. From this scene and the rows of running shoes he has, we realize that he is serious about running. He is released from prison, continues to train and wins the Vienna Marathon. It seems he has turned his back on his criminal ways. But what we eventually find out is that Johann is something of an adrenaline junkie, and an extremely fit one at that. Working a bank robbery (or two) into his schedule gives him a physical and emotional test that satiates his compulsion. As one might expect, The Robber has a couple fantastic chase scenes: one a heart-pounding escape in the heart of Vienna and another a more measure hunt in the woods. Johann is played with palpable tautness by Andreas Lust (who played the policeman in Revanche.) But Johann's pathological path is treated as a sort of fate that he can't break free from which I had a hard time chewing on. Needless to say, it is a fate he can't run from or run with for long. The Robber is extremely poised and efficient in making an argument on Johann's behalf, but it's only half effective if your not buying the sympathy that he's trying to sell.

sampaguita, National Flower (2010)
Francis X Pasion

Another film that blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, sampaguita, National Flower does so with a documentarians lens. Sampaguita turns a tender eye on the stories of Manila street children who scrape by selling garlands of the sweetly scented sampaguitas. Francis X Pasion (can that be his real name?) started by interviewing a half dozen kids and then used the kids to act out their own situations and scenarios. The result is an amalgamation: the bold interviews are woven between the heartbreaking street-wandering milieu. The film doesn't offer answers or resolutions, but instead presents an honest and fortuitous portrayal of the resilience of these young kids.

Aurora (2010)
Cristi Puiu

You know those tile games where one space is open and you have to slide the tiles around in the frame to get all the tiles in place to make a picture? This is how Cristi Puiu's plot is constructed in Aurora: each sequence is slightly out of place, but not so much that you can't see the entire picture. The catch is that Puiu's tile game is 3 hours long and the images he uses to build a story are incredibly ambiguous. It's only in the last 20 minutes that you start understanding how you should shuffle the pieces, and when the film ends you are still shuffling. Aurora is a knock out followup to The Death of Mr. Lazarescu that contains the same uncanny sense of detail but is infused with a huge dose of abstraction. The film follows the very peculiar coming-and-goings of Viorel (astonishingly played by Puiu himself) as he obviously prepares for something. But the timeline is askew and the character and his intentions are a mystery. Eventually these things come together, but despite the explanatory finale (a procedural that would have made Mr. Lazarescu either tired or agitated), much is left in a fog of obscurity. Gritty and complex, Aurora is a film that I can't wait to revisit.

Friday, October 15, 2010

VIFF: Day 11

Winter Vacation (2010)
Li Hongqi

Li Hongqi, be still my heart! Winter Vacation is something of a perfect mixture of Chinese specificity and avant-garde bravado. An incredibly austere set piece, Winter Vacation doesn't concern itself too much about drama or reality but instead builds a laconic daydream filled with irony and surrealism. Both adolescents and adults seem to be stuck in aimless stagnancy in a small town in northern China over winter break. Normally this vacation, which coincides with the Spring Festival (aka Chinese New Year), is depicted as an extremely lively time with family, food and firecrackers. Li Hongqi has painted the antithesis of this conception with the youth standing around looking at each other (and occasionally throwing slurs at one another) and their guardians doing much of the same. Winter Vacation is anchored by two sets of characters: five teenage boys who continually ask each other what they are going to do and an antagonistic grandfather and grandson sitting at opposite ends of a couch trading jabs. The film cycles through the non-events of the town—a thug extorting money from a kid, a woman buying nappa cabbage, a couple getting a divorce—but always returns to our two groups of heroes. At first these individuals seem oblivious to the absurdity of their stage set life until it is slowly revealed that they are more than aware of their sardonic situation. Kids and adults alike are calm but pensive. Li punctuates the beautifully barren images with a subtle soundtrack by experimental composer Zuoxiao Zuzhou (who has also contributed to soundtracks for Jia Zhangke, Zhu Wen, Yang Fudong and Ai Weiwei.) I, being a person who generally likes watching paint dry, adored Winter Vacation and it may just be my biggest discovery and favorite film of VIFF.

Chassis (2010)
Adolfo Alix, Jr.

The VIFF program bills Chassis as "sub-proletarian Filipina Jeanne Dielmann," a trick that seemed to have me in mind. There is an air of truth in this statement (especially in their respective final sequences) but the two are literally and metaphysically worlds apart. Nora's husband drives a truck and they live with their young daughter in makeshift homes underneath idle trucks in the truck yard alongside many other families. Her husband is often absent, even when he is not driving, and seems completely uninvolved with helping raise their daughter. Under the most extreme circumstances, Nora does her best to provide for her daughter and occasionally turns to prostitution to make ends meet. At one point in the film a man on the bus is asking for donations for people with disabilities. Although it is unimaginable, Nora sees that her situation could be worse and gives the man some money. Far be it from me to tell you that her situation does get worse, but Nora's perfunctory attitude is eventually pushed to the limit. Shot in black and white, Chassis makes the most of emotion in this even keel portrayal of life on the fringes.

Mundane History (2010)
Anocha Suwichakompong

It's hard to see a mystical film from Thailand and not think of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. But this would be ignoring that Thailand is a country deeply rooted in Buddhism, a religion that is far more open to broader definitions of life and the universe and Mundane History is magically able to work this into a simple but corporeal story. Ake is a young man who has been recently confined to a wheelchair from an accident that is never fully defined. Understandably bitter, Ake is hard on his new and easygoing nurse Pun, a man who is not much older than Ake. Early in the film, Pun laments to someone on the phone that he's not sure if he likes his job: "Everyone here is soulless." Mundane History patiently spends time proving this statement wrong. Ake slowly opens up to Pun and director Anocha Suwichakompong slowly introduces us to much larger themes that connect us all. The timeline is patterned, working back and forth within the period of time that Ake and Pun get to know each other peppered with burst of abstractions. The film derides conventional notions of time (presenting the title credit 20 minutes into the film) and the narrative is unconcerned with conclusion. As a matter of fact, the film ends with a bold statement on beginnings with an unblinking and visceral birth. The uncanny combination of macro and micro themes in Mundane History works seamlessly under Suwichakompong's gentle direction. If Pun releases animals in order to build his karma, Suwichakompong has made a film in order to build ours. It is also worth noting that Mundane History makes good use of pop songs in its soundtrack from the bands Furniture anItalicd The Photo Sticker Machine.

Oki's Movie (2010)
Hong Sang-soo
South Korea

Hong Sang-soo films should be more spread apart, because having just seen the vibrant Hahaha, Oki's Movie seems like a pale exercise. Split into four short films, Oki's Movie puts two men from different generations and their respective affair with Oki under the Hong microscope. The respective films show four different perspectives from four different times. Jingu is a film student whose affair with Oki raises the jealous ire of his professor, Song who also has a history with the young woman. Jingu is the hapless hero who we embarrassingly see flinging his ego in places it doesn't belong. In one of my favorite scene's from the film, Hong sets up a hilarious post-screening discussion where Jingu is answering questions about his film. Jingu is drunk and is being overly essoteric about his film when a young woman stands up and asks him why he dumped her friend he was seeing a couple years ago. The uncomfortable but compulsory Q & A that we all know so well is kicked up a notch as the young woman presses Jingu and no one, including Jingu, can put a stop to it. Oki's Movie certainly has its moments, but the four chapter portraiture—notated by separate credits and Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance"—seems like an unnecessary distraction.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

VIFF: Day 10

Another Year (2010)
Mike Leigh

For those who found Happy-Go-Lucky too annoying or Vera Drake too depressing, Another Year finds Leigh back in the territory of Secret and Lies, Life is Sweet and High Hopes. Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Sheen) play a happily married couple and hosts to a handful of lonely outsiders, who find warmth from the friendliness of the couple. Tom's a geologist and Gerri's a therapist and they effortlessly wile away their time in each other's company preparing food or tending their garden. At the forefront of the colorful cast of characters is Mary (Lesley Manville), a perky but lonely co-work who is always trying too hard to see the bright side of things that are clearly not bright. Covering a full year earmarked by the seasons, Another Year burns with a warmth that equally bitter and sweet. Some things change but most things don't. The cast is simply remarkable as Leigh is able to pull out some of the most amazing performances through his unconventional methods. This is especially the case with Ruth Sheen who steels the show as she did with a very similar character in High Hopes. Another Year is a gentle masterpiece from a gentle master. Another Year is scheduled for a US release later this year, and will be a shoe-in for one of the best of the year.

Aftershock (2010)
Feng Xiaogang

Garnering the favor of 1.3 billion people is nothing to scoff at. Feng Xiaogang's new blockbuster fantastique, Aftershock, has become the highest grossing domestic film in China. But, as we all know, impressive box office numbers don't always mean an impressive film. Feng has created the kind of weepy big budget melodrama that Hollywood incessantly cranks out every year, and it is predictably admirable and disappointing. Based on a novel of the same name, Aftershock dramatizes one family's epic experience of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake (the deadliest in history) and it's 30 year after effect. Husband and wife, Da and Qiang, and their twin son and daughter are representative of an average family that was torn apart by the earthquake. In this story, the four member family suffers one death and enough physical and emotional damage for the remaining three to last a lifetime (or the remainder of Aftershock's 135 minute runtime.) Feng pulls out the disaster CGI early in the film, but then allows full-tilt melodrama to drive the film home. Moving through the decades, the character's age and the country changes, landing the film in the middle of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake for a sense of resolve. Perhaps I give Aftershock a pass for its many shortcomings, most that come in the form of a forced narrative and an extremely heavy-handed drama. But the era that the film encapsulates is something of a harbinger for China. Although China's two biggest earthquakes fall in the years of 1976 and 2008, the significance of those years is not lost on most. With the death of Zhou Enlai and Mao Zidong, 1976 was an end of a very difficult epoch, preparing the country for the biggest changes yet that is most dramatically symbolized by the Summer Olympics held in Beijing in 2008. This subtle yet very nationalistic subtext lies just beneath the surface of Aftershock's blockbuster facade. China's Oscar contender, Aftershock shoots for broad mass appeal and sells out on just about everything else.

R (2010)
Michael Noer and Tobias Lindholm

In the realm of the prison/gang hierarchy film, I'm afraid we are on the brink of a revisionist upheaval which I could tire of very quickly. R starts to follow A Prophet so closely that I quickly got bored with this film's intentions. Rune is a tough and wily convict transferred to prison block where even the guards nonchalantly predict Rune's doom. Using wit and obedience, Rune finds a way to make peace and work his way into the lucrative drug trade being run by the prison kingpins. R is eventually able to set itself apart with an unexpected twist, but it certainly takes its time doing so. Although engaging and well acted, I sat through R feeling like I had seen this film too many times before.

Monday, October 11, 2010

VIFF: Day 9

Good Morning to the World (2010)
Hirohara Saturo

The young age of this first time director (23-years-old) is just one thing that makes Good Morning to the World impressive. Although Hirohara Saturo is obviously using a level of production available to him, he is nonetheless able to tap out a unique form to a familiar story. Takahashi is a teenager who is at the age where he would be rebelling against his parents. That is, if his parents were around. Takahashi lives with his mother, but her presence is minimal. He seem not only apathetic about the situation, but also quite comfortable. His curiosity about the world, however, is a task that he takes on himself with a naive voyeurism. When he finds some clues about a dead homeless man, he decides to blindly investigate. What he discovers on his journey is his own limitations and failings, both mentally and emotionally. Takahashi is played by actor Koizumi Yoichiro and portrayed by director Hirohara with nary a sign of self-consciousness or ironic cynicism. The honesty and confidence of this first feature caught the eye of the Dragons & Tigers jury and was given the Award for Young Cinema for this year's festival. Good Morning to the World has technical limitations but is an incredible creative achievement for the young crew.

Surviving Life (2010)
Jan Svankmajer
Czech Republic

I've been a Svankmajer fan since I saw Alice in 1989 at the Tivoli Theater in Kansas City. My dedication was sealed with Little Otik, but recent years with Svankmajer have been rough going. His 2005 Lunacy was a painful study in cynicism and misanthropy that couldn't even be saved by his imaginative animation. Surviving Life doesn't fair too much better. Full of academic nods and winks, the film follows Eugene down an Oedopal spiral of addictive dreams and suppressed memories. It is tedious, to say the least. Unfortunately, it is made worse by Svankmajer's own preamble in the film: an apology (also full of nods and winks) that the lack of a budget requires animating photographs rather than hiring actors. I love the look of the film, full of Svankmajer's trademark weirdness and animation, and regret that the filmmaker finds it necessary to make excuses for it.

The Strange Case of Angelica (2010)
Manoel de Oliveira

It feels unfair to write about a filmmaker with such a wide oeuvre without having much grounding in it, but that's the way it goes.The first thing to reconcile with the fastidiously shot The Strange Case of Angelica is that director, Manoel de Oliveira, will soon turn 102. The second is the film's unnerving and timeless beauty that feels almost fragile. Isaac (played by de Oliveira's grandson Ricardo Trepa) is a young photographer who is urgently called to a wealthy estate to take one last photograph of the recently passed young Angelica. Angelica and the image she renders in the camera haunt Isaac into insomnia and obsession. The Strange Case of Angelica is an homage to the art of the photograph. Entirely made up of still camera work, it explores classic composition with unsettling elegance. A touch of the supernatural comes off a little sophomoric, but it is minor compared to the exquisite bulk of this film.

L.A. Zombie (2010)
Bruce LaBruce

Let me just say it: L.A. Zombie, infamously banned and ostracized, is getting way too much attention. Without a doubt, it has been the worst 63 minutes of the Festival and I really can't imagine why this is getting programmed around the globe. It's only as subversive or interesting as seeing a porn at a major film festival. We watch a hulked up zombie man walk around L.A. sticking his Zombie stuff into dead people's newly formed holes. This magical experience resurrects the corpse every time and then zombie man moves on and does it again. Overly conscious of its poor craft, L.A. Zombie is a ridiculous exercise of genre bending and an even more ridiculous exercise for the audience. Midnight movie experience over.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

VIFF: Day 8

Merry-Go-Round (2010)
Yan Yan Mak and Clement Cheng
Hong Kong

Gallants might be the Clement Cheng film that everyone is talking about, but the Vancouver native also has a second 2010 film, Merry-Go-Round. Co-directed with up-and-coming female director Yan Yan Mak, Merry-Go-Round passes on parody and laughs in favor of humanism and drama. The film cleverly combines four individuals, two generations and two continents into a story about immigration and emigration. The film opens in San Francisco where Eva (played by 70s kung fu star Nora Miao) is a traditional Chinese doctor and Nam is a young lost soul looking for herself. The two of them both make the trip to Hong Kong to deal with unfinished business. Nam lands a job in a a coffin depository that is overseen by Hill (played by the Gallant crowd-please Teddy Robin Kwan). Eva returns to her father's herbal medicine shop to persuade her nephew, Fung, not to sell the family property. Eventually the storyline draws the four of them together in somewhat unexpected ways but with somewhat expected results. Mak and Cheng earn huge marks for the casting of Kwan and Miao, the latter an icon that has seen little screen time in the last 30 years. Cheng, tipping his hand as the kung fu fan that Gallants proves him to be, has one very satisfying scene where Eva gives her nephew the kind of smackdown that she was doing in films like Fist of Fury. Merry-Go-Round champions an independent feel that is rare in Hong Kong film, but unfortunately much of the drama suffers from the incessant pop-infused soundtrack. Rising stars in the field, Clement Cheng and Yan Yan Mak are two to watch.

The Fourth Portrait (2010)
Chung Mong-hong

Chung Mong-hong is yet another discovery, at least for me, from Taiwan. Although The Fourth Portrait is only his second feature, it's enough of a standout to chase down his first feature, Parking. The Fourth Portrait is inventively paced and beautifully shot. Xiang is ten years old and his father has just died. It rests upon his shoulders to go home and find his father's nicest suit and his best photograph. Unable to find a photo, Xiang produces the first portrait that sets up the film's modest narrative drive. Although it is clear that we will see three more portraits drawn by Xiang, they turn out to be unusual signposts in his journey. While the narrative moves forward, Chung switches the gears ever-so-slightly so that The Fourth Portrait feels fresh. Xiang is left to fend for himself until he is caught stealing food by a stern but caring janitor who takes Xiang under his wing. Suddenly the path for where the film is going is clear. Not quite. The film shifts: Xiang's mother is found and is taking him to her home where she has a new husband and newly born child. Once again, the film seems to settle into a groove, but wrong again. Xiang is the befriended by an older hang-about who only seems to be good at petty crime. Chung does this a few more times slowly working its way through Xiang's four portraits. Make no doubt about it, The Fourth Portrait is a coming of age story, but one told with inventive spirit and sophistication.

The Ugly Duckling (2010)
Garri Bardin

Garri Bardin's stop-motion animation of the much loved parable is at the very least a joy to watch. The creative character designs and slightly socialist connotation brings something totally new to the tale. The diabolical ducklings and the alien-headed goslings never failed to get a chuckle out of me. The operatic over-the-top score, however, is as pummeling as the relentless oppression of our poor ugly little duckling. There's an overwhelming cynicism to this adaptation that felt unnecessary.

Gallants (2010)
Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng
Hong Kong

So glad I got to see extremely fun film on the big screen in a packed house. Gallants is a loving homage to the kung fu films from the 60s and 70s ala Shaw Brothers and Bruce Lee. Clement Cheng this time aligns himself with Derek Kwok, someone he has worked with before as a screenwriter and who is breaking out onto the Hong Kong scene. In a sleepy part of Hong Kong, a helpless young man by the name of Leung has been sent to settle a property dispute. On his route he is bullied by a little kid, who Leung in turn bullies only to get bullied by the kid's father. A passerby takes pity on Leung and stops the very uneven fight. The selfless hero turns out to be the be the aging but legendary Tiger. Tiger and his fellow martial arts brother Dragon have been quietly holding vigil over their master, Law, who has been in a coma for 30 years. Old rivalries ignite as well as the fighting passion within Leung as master Law miraculously awakes to his biggest challenge yet! The brilliance of Gallants is not only in the overt style that Kwok and Cheng chooses to parody with great wit, but also in its cast. The trio of old-timers—Bruce Leung, Chen Kuan-tai and Teddy Robin Kwan—deliver more charisma than seems fair for one movie. Clement Cheng himself must be a creative force to be reckoned with, working on projects as diverse as Gallants and Merry-Go-Round. Gallants is not going to move mountains, but it sure is a raucous romp and a must see for any fan of the genre.

Rubber (2010)
Quentin Dupieux

Rubber is occasionally very clever, occasionally very funny, occasionally overly self-conscious and occasionally too redundant. A movie within a movie (but more importantly, an audience watching an audience), Rubber tells the tale of a rogue tire—abandoned in the desert and gaining a taste for blood (or more accurately gaining a taste for blowing things up with its tire-mind.) The introduction to the film comes from a police officer who pops out of the trunk of a car to explain that things in movies happen for no reason. Why is E.T. brown? No reason. Why do the two people in Love Story fall madly in love? No reason. Why does a complete stranger assassinate the president in JFK. No reason. And so it goes. Most things happen in Rubber for—you guessed it—no reason, and for almost half the film it is interesting. Rubber is very strange and it doesn't really work overall, but compared to the other midnight film (L.A. Zombie which I will get to in my next update), Rubber looks like a masterpiece.

VIFF: Day 7

Rumination (2009)
Xu Ruotao

Visually artist Xu Ruotao give the Cultural Revolution the full symbolic treatment in this experimental and counterintuitive film. At times feeling like a performance art piece and at times falling apart due to spare production values, Rumination is a refreshing new take on a popular subject in mainland Chinese film. The action follows the aimless wanderings of a small rural regiment of the Red Guard between 1966-76. They do a lot of nothing as they randomly persecute individuals and explore the dilapidated buildings that adorn the barren landscape. The film's segments are notated by year intertitles that go chronologically. The visuals, however, depict occurrences in the opposite order. In other words, the opening, titled 1966, clearly represents the Tangshan earthquake in 1976, and the ending, titled 1976, represents Mao's resurgence of power in 1966. In the middle Xu uses archive footage for 1971, a turning point in the Cultural Revolution due to Lin Biao's criminalization and death. The film feels very free form, but with closer examination, Rumination is filled with specificity. Xu Ruotao never underestimates the audience's understanding of Chinese history and ability to interpret its often vague allegories, and, as a result, much of the film remains elusive. As a painter, Xu is given to greater leaps of faith than is characteristic in filmmaking. Xu was on hand after the screening and the first thing he did was apologise for not knowing how to make a film, an admiral recognition even if it is just half modesty. He also said he had no idea why he flipped the timeline in such an unconventional way, making it even more interesting. In many ways, I think Rumination's odd chronology speaks to the way time and political movements cycle. Rumination was included in the selection for the Dragons and Tigers Award for Young Cinema and was rightfully awarded a special mention.

End of Animal (2010)
Jo Sung-hee
South Korea

Although seeing so many movies lumped together makes things a little muddled and it becomes hard to make bold statements without a little time and perspective, I'm going to do it anyway: Jo Sung-hee's End of Animal is one of the most unique South Korean films I have seen in some time and may well be the most sublimely unique in the Festival. End of Animal is a loosely spiritual film portraying an ambiguous apocalypse that comes suddenly without cinematic trappings or warning. Soon-young is pregnant and traveling via taxi from Seoul to her mother's house north of the city. The driver picks up a young man headed in the same direction who has the uncanny ability to know everything about both the driver and Soon-young, including what they are thinking. I'll stop there. Most of this film is about experiencing the unexpected under pretenses that don't necessarily match the subject matter. Jo Sung-hee winds this story up tighter than a drum, sending waves of dread, anticipation and frustration through a captive audience. End of Animal leaves you with far more questions and mysteries than answers and conclusions, and dares to be wildly allegorical. The director was in attendance, and was faced with an audience that I don't think knew how to process this film. Other than admitting to religious inspirations, Jo shed few clues about this enigmatic film. Reminiscent of Moon Seung-wook's abstract Nabi from 2001, End of Animal is an unbelievable debut film.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

VIFF: Day 6

I Wish I Knew (2010)
Jia Zhangke

Jia Zhangke's I Wish I Knew plunges into the depths of Shanghai's living history with huge doses of artistry and humanism. Politically bold and historically rich, I Wish I Knew is a compassionate search for the heart of a city bursting at the seams with modernity. Since opening its ports to foreign trade, Shanghai has been a sponge for the country's ills and advances, but has maintained its aura as a European city even in China's most xenophobic moments. The Shanghai that we know now was built by its trade prowess, but defined by wars that raged in the 30s and 40s. Although Shanghai was under constant threat from the Japanese for nearly 15 years, it was the brutal battles between the Communists and the Nationalist that held the population in a powder keg that eventually sent residents scattershot physically and emotionally. It is this fragile moment in the 1940s from which Jia excavates stories about Shanghai from people still residing in the Paris of East and others flung to Hong Kong or Taiwan. Most are recalling moments of their childhood or the trials endured by their parents: the daughter of a gangster, the son of a KMT officer, the son of a Communist officer. But Jia also mines Shanghai's cinematic past by interviewing the son of actress Shangguan Yunzhu (Two Stage Sisters, Crows and Sparrows), the daughter of director Fei Mu (Springtime in a Small Town) as well as the living actress from that film Wei Wei (recently seen in her small role in Freddy Wong's The Drunkard.) Jia also spends a brief amount of time with Hou Hsiao-hsein, in the last car of a train of course. There is also a fascinating interview with the man in charge of Antonioni as he shot his documentary Chung Kuo. Zhou Enlai had invited the French auteur, but later when Zhou had fallen out of favor with the Communist, the innocent man was rigorously questioned for his involvement with Antonioni's 'anti-revolutionary' film. The interviews, as one might expect, are beautifully staged even in the cases where they are particularly stayed. Connecting the interviews are elegiac scenes from the city that recall moments of 24 City. Jia closes out the film with interviews from the new generation: a self mad man in the stock market and the hugely popular writer/blogger/racecar driver Han Han. The English title, I Wish I Knew, is an epitaph for Shanghai's history that is being buried under its gloss and wealth, but it also seems to describe the desire of a young director too understand. The Chinese title, 海上传奇, with the characters for Shanghai inverted like Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flowers of Shanghai, is literally translated to "legend on the sea." Commissioned for the Shanghai Expo, I Wish I Knew keeps Jia on firm documentary ground with the exception of ambiguous and slightly heavy-handed interludes that include Zhao Tao. I nonetheless, relished every second of I Wish I Knew: a beautiful tribute to the city that now roars.

Insects in the Backyard (2010)
Tanwarin Sukkhapisit

An assured debut from Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, who acts as director, writer and star, Insects in the Backyard is an oblique and very personal confrontation of Thailand's sex trade. Jenny and Johnny are teenagers whose parents have 'died' and who now live with their older sister, Tanya, a transvestite prone to wearing long black gloves and smoking gowns as she casually hangs out at home. The kids are endlessly frustrated with Tanya's constant coddling and mothering, and Tanya is always silently devastated by their rejection. The complications and confusions between the trio compel them to individually seek libido driven answers. Insects in the Backyard is a painfully honest film that is occasionally hard to watch due to its candidness. Sukkhapisit has made an incredibly brave first film.

Sawako Decides (2010)
Ishii Yuya

A sweet and effective comedy, Sawako Decides is carried by the spirited performance of Hikari Mitsushima as Sawako. Sawako is a classic underachiever, or, as she describes it, a low-middler. After five years in Tokyo, she is on her fifth job and her fifth boyfriend and neither one is worth writing home about. But writing home is something Sawako never did anyway, having left at the age of 18 with a very large chip on her shoulder. But now her father is sick, and, at the persuasion of her uncle and her boyfriend (who sees a possible career opportunity for himself), Sawako returns home to help with her father's clam packaging company. Facing the scrutiny of the entire village for abandoning her father and his business, Sawako is forced to confront her low-middling characteristics to put her life on track. Although the film has some unexpected turns, you know exactly where this film is going. Peppered with clever and funny dialogue, Sawako Decides, at the very least, aims to please.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Uncle Boonmee, you are wonderful. But given my behindedness in these updates and the fact that I am going to Uncle Boonmee again in a few days, I will post my thoughts a little later.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Three to remember. VIFF: Day 5

Yowzers day 5. I should just go home now. There is absolutely no way I can do any of the films below justice considering available time and brain, so please accept my apologies for the brief and muddled thoughts. All three of these films are highly recommended.

Hahaha (2010)
Hong Sang-soo
South Korea

I sat in Hahaha completely bewildered: Why had I never thought about Woody Allen in connection with Hong Sang-soo? I tried to run through Hong's films in my head. Was I distracted by other aspects? Or is Hahaha just that much different from the rest of his films? Either way, basking in the glow of Hahaha, it seemed to hit me over the head with a 2 x 4. (And for the record, we are talking about Allen's "funnier films.") Munkyung and Jungshik are friends who are revisiting recent events over a few drinks. They trade stories of their coincidental trips to Tongyung on the southern coast of Korea, and, as their stories play out on screen, we realize—but they don't—that their wanderings in the area overlap and include some of the same people. Munkyung is a recently fired professor who now calls himself a film director (even though he hasn't made a film) and is planning on immigrating to Canada to help his aunt run a photo franchise. Jungshik is a depressed married man who is having an affair with an airline stewardess and is tortured by the fact that he is being untrue to both of them. All events involve hilarious and farcical attempts to make connections with other people (generally of the opposite sex) and large amounts of soju. Munkyung is played to brilliant pathetic perfection by veteran Hong actor Kim Sangkyung. A mama's boy prone to weeping, Munkyung is a Hong Sangsoo styled everyman but is given the onscreen space to indulge in conventional character tropes including a dream sequence and a fist fight, both constructed with Hong's unique touch. Seongok (stunningly played by Moon Sori) is an odd and irreverent museum tour guide that Munkyung woefully chases. Munkyung and Jungshik's gathering from which the flashbacks unfold is only seen in brief black and white snap shots and voice over exchanges that would go something like this: "Wow. You were really great!" "Yeah." "Cheers!" "Cheers." "Hahaha." There is a certain formal and tonal restraint to Hong's films, and just a touch of that restraint falls away in Hahaha, easily making it one of the most enjoyable films he has made.

Don't Be Afraid, Bi! (2010)
Phan Dang Di

Toppling any and all expectation, Don't Be Afraid Bi! is one of the most remarkable debut films I have seen in a very long time. Directed by Phan Dang Di, the scribe of last year's subtle Adrift, Don't Be Afraid, Bi! displays a rare skill for storytelling, an uncanny eye for cinematic elegance and a fearless candor for difficult subjects. Bi is a 6-year-old boy who lives with his patient mother, alcoholic father, lonely aunt and bedridden grandfather who has recently returned to Vietnam. Each adult member of the family is dealing with their respective demons as Bi looks on. On the surface the narrative is neither new or innovative, but Phan is able to be delicately obvious and subtly overt, especially in sexual intonations. Don't Be Afraid, Bi! has one of the most surreal seductions sequences since Oshima's Cruel Story of Youth. (And I use the word "seduction" very loosely in both cases.) Meanwhile he weaves the familial riffs with Bi's innocent explorations of an ice factory and the grassy fields next to the river with visual innovation. His naive observations are a visual patchwork for the viewer that add a substance that few films even bother with. The final shot binds the characters and the film to the dirt they live upon while acknowledging the world as something much bigger and much more mysterious. Don't Be Afraid, Bi! is a revelation, and Vietnam is long overdue for such an incredible new voice in filmmaking.

Karamay (2009)
Xu Xin

Not only the longest film at VIFF, Karamay may also be the most important. On December 8, 1994 a fire broke in Friendship Hall in Karamay, a town in the far western Chinese province of Xinjiang. Inside the large theater, the region's brightest and most talented young students were performing for local and regional officials. 325 people were killed in the fire, 288 of them were children. The chaos that ensued in the weeks that followed the fire was heightened because of the obvious and overwhelming grief of parents and relatives, but also by the shameless government cover up of the story. A media embargo on the tragedy, still in effect in China, meant to quash the story seems to have had the opposite effect and left many people burning with hatred and sorrow and allowed the incident to symbolize government corruption through underground channels. Xu Xin's six hour documentary, shot in 2007, attempts to make up for 13 years of forced silence through his own relentless investigation of staggering emotional resonance. The film opens on the 13th anniversary of the fire at the huge graveyard of the victims in the middle of a barren, rubble-filled field. Walking around to the gravestones, each with a small photo, we slowly start to meet some of the families who have come to burn offerings to their dead children. From here, Xu moves into the bulk of the film which is made up of candid interviews with the parents and archive news reports, home videos and long buried media footage. Slowly and patiently, Karamay allows people to fully express their feelings, suspicions and first hand accounts about the fire—an accommodation that these people are given probably for the first time from someone outside of their circle. Xu builds a devastating portrait of the events, the unbelievable negligence and the lost souls left behind. Thirteen years is still painfully recent for the interviewees but seems like enough distance from the incident for this documentary to exist with proper perspective. If my comments above haven't been clear, I was completely bowled over by Karamay and its a film I hope to return to in the future.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

VIFF: Day 4

The Man From Nowhere (2010)
Lee Jeong-beom
South Korea

Completely by the numbers, The Man From Nowhere borrows from so many South Korean action dramas that it almost feels like a theatrical déjà vu. Almost. The film opens with a police stakeout at a club where a drug deal is taking place—the goods are dropped, the police rush in, a dancing girl steals the drugs and the evidence that the police need is gone. The film cuts to a rundown apartment building where a mysterious loner (Won Bin) runs a pawn shop. His only friend is a young neighbor girl who is unafraid of his silence and shady look. As things go, the girl is the daughter of the dancing girl who stole the drugs and the drugs have been stashed in a camera bag sold to the pawn shop. The mob is hot on the woman's tail and the police are hot on the mob's tail. Our man from nowhere gets caught in the middle and his long buried past comes rushing to the surface. The Man From Nowhere is a pulsing and often violent thriller that has no problem stopping now and then for a little melodrama. Most of it results from the clichéd friendship between the secretive lone wolf and the cast aside young girl. But don't go to The Man From Nowhere for the drama, go for the well designed action sequences including a hand-to-hand knife fight that would impress any ronin. Reminiscent of last year's The Chaser and numerous other slick South Korean actioneers, The Man From Nowhere is nonetheless able to carve out a very satisfying niche for itself. The 10:00am screening could not stop the Won Bin fans from storming the theater, coffee in hand. Coos emerged at his first appearance and a shirtless scene near the middle of the film—the power of the heartthrob lives!

The High Life (2010)
Zhao Dayong
preceded by
Condolences (2009)
Ying Liang

Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Zhao Dayong (Ghost Town) jumps to fiction with this unique and fiercely independent film. Bifurcated by two narrative strains, The High Life unexpectedly switches tonal gears and, as a result, magically lifts the burden of expectations. Set in the mean streets of Ghangzhou, Jian Ming runs a fake employment stand where he guiltlessly takes the money of desperate migrant workers knowing that they will disappear before they have a chance to realize his scam. Oddly content with his so-called business, Jian wiles away his free time practicing Beijing opera in full costume and hanging out with his girlfriend who works as a prostitute. His personal conflicts are internalized and are only revealed in his actions—some subtle, some not so subtle. When his friend talks him into helping with a pyramid scheme, he suddenly and insignificantly gets arrested, which jettisons the film into its second part in a jail where Jian is being held. The focus shifts to an unscrupulous but kindhearted prison guard, Dian Qui. Dian forces prisoners to incessantly read aloud from a of his own poetry and finds ways to punish those who refuse. Dian's odd form of reformation is accepted and even relished by some of the prisoners. Dian's candor allows us to get to know some of the inmates, but there fate in the prison is as fleeting as their future. The actors who play Jian and Dian provide a sense of honesty to their complex characters with seemingly little or no effort. The film's title is borrowed from a line spoken by a thug in anticipation for a future that doesn't exist. The High Life depicts anything but what the title implies, and instead finds a simple sort of grace in the small pleasures. Zhao's unusually narrative adds a new facet to the well-worn path of indie Chinese film. Condolences, screened ahead of The High Life, is a documentary that gives the viewer a fly-on-the-wall perspective of a solemn funeral in one fascinating shot.

The Drunkard (2010)
Freddie Wong
Hong Kong

Based on the popular Hong Kong novel of the same name, Freddie Wong's debut feature is as boozy as the title implies. The Drunkard, however, is able to compliment the somber drunken atmosphere with swoon worthy 1960s Hong Kong sexiness. The film's namesake is Mr. Lau, a disillusioned middle-age writer whose private and public failures are washed away with endless glasses of whiskey. Haunted by his memories of the Japanese war in Shanghai, Lau slowly loses his means to support himself, his addiction and the beautiful woman who provide him companionship. Veteran actor Zhang Guozhu carries The Drunkard on his solid but liquor soaked shoulders. He embodies the contradictions of this dignified adict with gritty charm. As if trying to protect himself from the same fate, he finds it easy to call other people clichés. It's worth noting that Wong is a film critic and a programmer for the Hong Kong International Film Festival. He purchased the rights to the novel ten years ago and it has taken him this long to get his film made. The film boasts an impressive production despite its shoestring budget, with an inspired cast of classic actors. As any screen shot or clip will show, The Drunkard will forever be burdened by comparisons to In the Mood for Love (which also drew inspiration from the same novel.) In making a masterpiece, Wong Kar Wai owns the era in with The Drunkard is set. (The Drunkard received its International Premiere here at VIFF with Freddy Wong in attendance.)

The Metamorphosis (2010)
Lee Samchil
South Korea
preceded by
Father's Challenge (2010)
Jo Ara
South Korea

South Korean experimental film: one a riff on Guy Maddin and one a riff on Kafka. Neither worked. 'Nuff said.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Fortune tellers and fairy tales. VIFF: Day 3

Seven Days in Heaven (2010)
Wang Yu-lin, Essay Liu

A perfectly calculated dramody, Seven Days in Heaven is an excellent representation of a mainstream film from Taiwan that will probably never find its way across the Taiwan Straight or the South China Sea, let alone the Pacific Ocean. Debut directors, Wang Yu-lin and Essay Liu, effortlessly combine refreshing humor and bittersweet sorrow that feels honest to the characters they represent. After Lin Guo-yan passes away, his family and friends congregate for a funeral with all the Buddhist bells and whistles. Steeped in rigorous tradition, the funeral must be carried out with specified ritual and seven days of mourning. The majority of this burden falls on Lin's daughter, Mei, and son, Da-zhi. The two follow all the filial obligations while also dealing with their very mixed emotions. Presiding over the ceremony is Yi, an eccentric Taoist priest and hobbyist poet, and his multifaceted girlfriend who works as a professional mourner, karaoke singer and all around charmer. The script is whip-smart and is able to build the characters into unique yet familiar individuals. Light and entertaining, Seven Days balances complex emotions with ironic wit into a very sweet affair of the heart.

Pinoy Sunday (2010)
Ho Wi Ding

Pinoy Sunday is a buddy film about two immigrant Filipino workers in Taiwan. With the promise of higher wages, Manuel and Dado travel far from their home as contract workers in a bicycle manufacturing plant. Manuel is the free spirit and smooth talker who worries more about chasing girls than being deported for curfew violations. Dado is a family man who left a wife and daughter back in the Philippines and is now guilt ridden about the girlfriend he has in his new home. Down on their luck and feeling low, Manuel and Dado spot an expensive abandoned sofa that symbolizes a brighter future for the two of them. The only problem is how the money-strapped duo will get the sofa back across town before their curfew. Like a hybrid 48 Hours, Pinoy Sunday tracks their mission impossible from city center to police station to river crossing. Unfortunately Manuel and Dado are sketched as caricatures and never allow the film to levitate beyond its own contrivances. As they bicker their way across town, they are scripted into corners of calculated humor. It's hard to take either of their characters seriously, even when they are being serious, and that likewise carries over to the entire film.

Peace (2010)
Soda Kazuhiro

A simply yet poetic "observation film," Peace was commission by the DMZ Documentary Film Festival, a festival that highlights the complicated issues at the North and South Korea Demilitarized Zone. Kazuhiro's film focuses on the humanitarian work of Kashiwagi Toshio and his wife Hiroko. The couple run a non-profit to help the elderly and disabled who do not have the ability to drive. The people they visit, help and just spend time with are those cast aside with little or no support system left. There kind-hearted endeavors carry over to the gang of motley cats that take refuge in their backyard. Also unwanted by the majority of society, the cats become an allegory for the disabled and the infirmed. Kazuhiro's gentle portrait finds a simple power in humanity and kindness - an onscreen rarity.

The Sleeping Beauty (2010)
Catherine Breillat

Coming at this film with only a Walt Disney knowledge of the fairy tell "Sleeping Beauty" is not going to help anyone. Catherine Breillat tackles her second fairy tale in so many years with surreal and abstract panache. And while the origins of Bluebeard's sinisterness is obvious, The Sleeping Beauty's is buried within Charles Perrault's original from 1697 as well as other adaptations that followed. But even full knowledge of these texts may not help navigate Breillat's obscure intentions with this lavishly detailed but highly digressive adaptation. Much like the original, a young princess is cursed at birth to fall into a deep sleep that will last 100 years. But here is where the film splits with the text as Breillat freely improvises a surreal world that feels merely inspired by the fairy tale. Anastasia, as the princess is named here, spends much of the film wandering a dreamworld that she enters after impaling (not pricking) her hand. The Sleeping Beauty is full of the most striking images that resonate and leave an impression: vultures perched in a tree with a slate-grey sky; they young girl riding a deer in a pink outfit through a snowy landscape; the ogre covered in boils who challenges the young girl. Unfortunately the narrative details become as confounding and tedious as the ambiguous logic behind this loosely woven story. Fairy tales, and their perverse subtexts, seem perfect for Breillat's keen eye for social and sexual politics, but this one is far too drawn out and elusive, even for this fan.

Fortune Teller (2009)
Xu Tong

Armed with an HD camera, Xu Tong has made one of the bravest documentaries I have ever seen. Brave, not so much because of the risk or the strength it took to make Fortune Teller, but brave because the importance of the subject matter is placed ahead of the importance of the audience. Xu Tong takes a long look (2 1/2 hours) at Li Baicheng, a traditional Chinese fortune teller, and his wife Pearl Shi. Both are physically disabled and int their 60s, and Pearl is also mentally disabled. The couple, and most the people they come in contact with, represent the fringes of the fringes of Chinese society. Its a completely engrossing examination that is as rewarding as it is painful. I was completely galvanized. (This is an international premiere for Fortune Teller and I plan on spending some time on a full review.)

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Portugal takes the prize! VIFF: Day 2

Although I missed two screenings I planned on attending (High Life because of time; 13 Assassins because of, well, mass popularity), Mysteries of Lisbon more than made up for it. My paltry thoughts below don't come close to doing the film justice, but I will hopefully return to it later. (Although 13 Assassins screens one more time, it is up against a 6 hour mainland Chinese film that I may never get a chance to see again. 13 Assassins has been picked up by Magnet and will be released early next year.)

Of Love and Other Demons (2010)
Hilda Hildalgo
Costa Rica/Colombia

I first have to admit only a passive interest in Gabriel García Márquez and that I have never read Of Love and Other Demons. That being said, I can totally understand the draw to adapt Gabo's novels into films. The images of languid Latin exoticism and eroticism make for very cinematic possibilities. Hilda Hildalgo attempts to tap into this, but butted up against Mysteries of Lisbon in my viewing schedule, Of Love and Other Demons feels academic and lifeless despite its beauty. Sierva (otherwise just referred to as "the girl" or "the child") is a first generation white Colombian who is comfortable with the native cultures, flora and fauna. Her parents and other figures of authority, however, have an antagonism toward their place of immigration—a fact that has stained almost every example of European exploration and expansion. Sierva is burdened with an unearthly beauty marked by her long curly red hair and fair complexion. So when she is bitten by a rabid dog, the local Catholic authority deems her possessed and locks her in a cell. The young priest sent to 'fight for her soul' slowly finds himself attracted to the young beauty and must deal with his own demons. Of Love and Demons sets up a perfect triangle of colonial tension between the politicians, the church and the natives. But the passion, such as it is, is too poised even for the the puritanical folks. Of Love and Demons is certainly nice to look at but fails to draw on any emotions.

Mysteries of Lisbon (2010)
Raúl Ruiz

Even though a 4 1/2 hour period drama sounds like a total snoozer, I really couldn't resists fitting this into my schedule given the glowing reports coming from Toronto and knowing that this would probably be my only chance to see it theatrically. I'm glad I did. Mysteries of Lisbon is somehow able sustain narrative drive with subtlety and the good old fashioned art of storytelling. The story spirals out like a kaleidoscope with a cast of characters who are all connected to young João. João is an orphan plagued with not knowing the identity of his mother or his father, but slowly and methodically, Ruiz reveals one character after another that surround him. And with each new character comes a new story and a new mystery—each one more fascinating and richly detailed than the previous (or at least the film creates the level of engagement to make it seem so.) Despite its theatrical historic setting, Mysteries of Lisbon oozes with robust life and earthbound humanity that includes an original score that accentuates, but doesn't overpower, the drama. You hate to see João grow older, because you know that eventually this experience (that magically balances the cerebral with the emotional) must come to an end. Although the ending feels like a sever between film and audience, finality is announced with yet another mystery, this one more metaphysical, resting on the conscience of the viewer. I have no idea about the novel from which this film is adapted, but if it is half as extraordinary as the film, someone should translate it!

Get Out of the Car (2010)
Thom Andersen
preceded by
The Indian Boundary Line (2010)
Thomas Comerford

From a logistical standpoint these two non-narrative shorts seem like perfect companion pieces (and unless my eyes deceived me—also possible—I think they shared some crew members.) Unfortunately Thomas Comerford's meditation on a now-obscured Indian Treaty boundary is overly pedantic and failed to have any of the lyricism of Thom Andersen's work. The Indian Boundary Line is a landscape film that explores the context of a portion of American history that is becoming more and more concealed. Unfortunately it failed to engage me either on an intellectual or visual level and felt about 20 minutes too long. On the flip side, it allowed Andersen's Get Out of the Car to immediately feel more joyful and full of life, even if it is a minor film compared to Los Angeles Plays Itself. Clocking in at just over a half an hour, Get Out of the Car explores the dilapidations and appropriations of signage and murals in the LA area combined with an ingenious mixture of music and narration. And while Andersen's structural film has a point, it still maintains an expressive buoyancy.

Friday, October 1, 2010

O Canada. VIFF: Day 1

Day one in Vancouver hardly counted. My plan to catch at least three films after my arrival was shot down by 1) a sick pilot, 2) a broken plane and 3) no bag. And while that all kinda sucks, I was still able to take in a movie. Cold Fish sort of capped off my crappy day with this though: things could be worse!

Cold Fish (2010)
Shion Sono

Shion Sono's Cold Fish, his follow-up to his 2008 megalomaniacal 3 1/2 hour epic Love Exposure, is far more focused and fleshed out but it is also far more somber in its damnation of family culture and modern social schemas. Dubiously based on a true story, Cold Fish charts an emasculated family man's journey to the edge of his violent misogynistic psyche. Shamoto is a mild mannered fish shop owner who is psychologically beaten down by his unresponsive teenage daughter and his frigid wife. Soon we find out that there is a seriously twisted hierarchy in the household that seems to be careening out of control. Until Murata steps in, that is. Murata, a competing but much more successful fish shop owner, wants to set the patriarchal record straight and adopts Shamoto and his family under his sadistic wing. Nothing that happens will come as a surprise to those familiar with Sono's films, but the dark mood just gets darker and the humor gets less humorous. Most of the audience was squirming during the brutal grand finale. Cold Fish feels like a transition into serious filmmaking for Sono, with gravitating performances and solid production. The opening montage is a tightly wound visual allegory to the barbarity that lies just beneath the surface of modern domestication. But the chaos in which most of Sono's films rely on is not so joyful in Cold Fish. Just over two hours, Cold Fish is a rigorous and unrelenting experience. (It is worth noting that Cold Fish is one of the initial titles for Sushi Typhoon, a North American launching pad for Nikkatsu, a very exciting development in the distribution of Japanese films in the US.)