Winter Vacation (2010)
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.
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)
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 and The Photo Sticker Machine.
Oki's Movie (2010)
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.