Tuesday, October 16, 2012


There is an introspective pall hanging over Memories Look at Me that goes naturally with the thematic territory of visiting home as an adult. But Song Fang’s debut feature tackles the mixture of nostalgia, sadness, and regret with a very easy to swallow tenderness, worlds away from exaggerated bromides of middle-aged self pity. Using the comfort of her own family—mother, father, and older brother—Song scripts a documentary out of a visit to her parents' home in Nanjing. Her outward concern for their physical health is matched by their oblique inquiry to her unmarried status. Painted with the cool tones of ambient light, the film is a slow train of casual conversation and delicate confessions that all carry a substantial emotional vibration.

Song Fang, who both stars and directs, will look familiar from her role in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 2008 Parisian rondeau Flight of the Red Balloon where she stars opposite Juliette Binoche as a filmmaker working as a nanny. Born in China, she studied film first in Brussels and then in Beijing. There might be something prophetic about being cast by Hou, but there is also something very prescient in catching the eye of Mainland master Jia Zhangke, who produced Memories under the wing of his production company Xstream. Song, already a young director that seems to be working in an inner circle, has created a film that rubs elbows with the fiercely independent work of Chinese director Liu Jiayin and the grand mono no aware elegance of Yasujiro Ozu. This caliber of names is simply a testament to how special a film this is.

This unaffected film slides comfortably into a modern depiction of filial piety in a society where Confucius is little more than an apparition. Although she inspects her parent’s lives as a visitor, Song also cleans her father’s ears and plucks her mother’s eyebrows as if she has always been their caretaker. There is a unique generosity with the time that everyone takes in listing to one another—a quality mirrored in the patience of the camera. The finality of life and the struggle to make the most of the time left gently leaves an impression on every scene. When Song suddenly starts crying, her mother asks, “What’s on your mind?” She replies that she’s not sure, even though it is perfectly clear she is thinking bout her parents’ eventual death. To the film's credit, the implication is there without diving headlong into melodrama.

Memories Look at Me is an unpretentious film, shot almost entirely inside one apartment with static middle range shots, and sparsely lit beyond ambient lighting. Despite its modest attributes it is already pulling down awards, earning Best First Feature Award at the Locarno International Film Festival earlier this year. In Vancouver, it was nominated for the Dragons & Tigers Award for Young Cinema, but came up short to the experimental narrative of Emperor Visits the Hell. It is also receiving praise at the New York Film Festival and Busan International Film Festival where it recently screened. One can only hope that this healthy festival attention will bring it further recognition and possible distribution, especially in the States. Without a new feature from Jia or Liu, Song Fang’s moving film fills a low-key void in what we are seeing from the Mainland this year.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

VIFF 2012: Jang Kun-jae's SLEEPLESS NIGHT

After the wave of New Korean Cinema hit the world like a slap from the back of a hand in the late 90s and early 00s, certain expectations were set from the most prominent films to rise from that era. South Korean film, even in its most subtle form, became the cinema with big shoulders, represented in the slick action, emblematic vengeance, soju swagger, unapologetic brutality, and brash humor. For this reason, an assured yet unadorned drama like Jang Kun-jae’s Sleepless Night is actually more surprising than the latest go-for-broke revenge flick to come down the pike. 
The film opens in a small town at night, where the sound of the crickets is louder than the teenagers horsing around on the sidewalk. We finally settle on our protagonists, a couple sitting in front of the TV, each enjoying a glass of beer, chatting about their day. They sit close in a tiny love seat barely meant for two; he has his shirt off, she has her pants off. He mentions that he has agreed to work on Sunday as a requested favor to his supervisor; she’s concerned, only because it seems he’s being taken advantage of; he considers it, and realizes that she is probably right.
The couple, married for two years, has an ease with each other that is instantly endearing. He works in a factory, she’s a yoga instructor, and their companionship, which dominates the short but sweet 65-minute anti-drama, exudes authenticity. The snapshot of their relationship, as they face the pressures of parenthood and the realities of their income, is unapologetically sprinkled with their mutual adoration and consideration for each other. As clichéd as that sounds in writing, it feels wholly unconventional on the screen.
Sleepless Night is Jung’s first film since winning the Dragons and Tigers Award in Vancouver three years ago for his debut Eighteen, a film that also gives careful consideration to the veracity of its characters. Sleepless Night is similarly slight by design, where excessiveness is simply not in its vocabulary. The drama, modest as it is, occasionally segues into fantasy without warning—a skip of the needle into a parallel universe where the couple’s simple and happy lives are disrupted by the melodrama that the film so effortlessly eschews. By introducing scenes where they argue and bicker, Jang is not only pointing out the avoided potential within their marriage, but also the avoided potential within his own film.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


Society has a way of demanding that we find our career path early and stick to it, not only as a definition of character but also a bogus demarcation of success. Sigríður Níelsdóttir, a woman who started making music at the age of 70 to become something of a phenomenon, tosses that conventional idea right out the window. Armed with a mighty Casio keyboard, a dual cassette deck recording and dubbing system, and the same noisemakers everyone else has in their house, this plucky septuagenarian set up her studio in her kitchen and started her musical career with nothing else in mind other than the infectious joy of creating.

And as if reading our minds, the lyrics in the song that opens Grandma Lo-fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigríður Níelsdóttir announces, “That’s right. It’s never too late to start doing what you want.” A resident of Iceland, by way of Germany and Denmark, Níelsdóttir created 59 CDs and over 600 songs between the ages of 70 and 77 with little training. Although she studied piano for three years, she readily admits that she can’t read music, and that she has to edit out her mistakes. “That’s cheating, isn’t it?” she laughs. By the time we see Níelsdóttir pull her doily off her keyboard for a demonstration and show us her array of clever sound makers—recorded by plugging a mic into that dual cassette recorder—the film’s work is done. We are charmed. We are inspired.

Unfortunately, the film coasts on this irresistible personality and fails to draw out the storyline that hovers just below the surface. There are a fair amount of bells and whistles employed, namely hand drawn collages assembled into stop motion animation theatrics, but it feels like a diversion from the innate charisma of the subject. Hidden within the questions never asked are clues to why, at the age of 70, this idiosyncratic woman became absorbed in making music.

Directed by three musicians who forged a friendship with Níelsdóttir before deciding to shoot this humble and impressionistic portrait, Grandma Lo-fi is less of an in depth tell-all of a cult musical wonder than it is an inventive tribute to a late-in-life artist who passed away last year. In keeping with the analogue textures of Níelsdóttir music, the doc was shot primarily on Super 8 and 16mm, embellished with a conscious flicker and grain that comes with the format.

The music in question has a naïve magic combined with compulsive creation ala Wesley Willis. But unlike Willis, Níelsdóttir has a much more varied palette tapping into her Casio’s endless combinations of canned rhythms, beats and sounds and layered with a mix of her own vocals, sounds of her own invention, as well as ambient recordings from her everyday life. All of this gets dubbed and edited on cassette and mastered on CD, at which point Níelsdóttir creates handmade covers, and delivers to the record store. And it is very clear that she lives for every minute of it.

Interspersed throughout the film’s short 62 minutes are a number of Icelandic musicians who step in front of the camera to either sing to or play along with one of Níelsdóttir’s tune. And although we don’t see Björk or Sigur Rós, the musicians and bands nonetheless represent a sort of who’s who of indie Icelandic music: Sin Fang, múm, FM Belfast, Mr. Silla, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Mugison, and Kría Brekkan—all a testament to grandma lo-fi’s status in this influential bubble of society.

Níelsdóttir’s celebrity is never quantified, but it resides in the individuals that discovered her unassuming creativity, one person at a time. Its viral proliferation was no doubt as DIY as her art and music, relying on a more physical social network like good old fashioned word-of-mouth. At one point she looks at the camera and says, “Do you know how to make campfire sounds?” Even in the off chance that we might know, Níelsdóttir intends to share her own personal triumph with everyone. Although Grandma Lo-fi parries with more style than substance, there is nonetheless a feeling of gratitude in having been introduced to this unique and heartening individual, even if it is just a handshake.

Friday, October 12, 2012

VIFF 2012

The Vancouver International Film Festival has come and gone, and this is what I have to show for it: 52 films of varying length, many of which will never ever land in a theater near me. Follow the links to the various films I have written reviews for, and, over the next month or so, I will toss out some left over reviews from the fest, as well as chip away at writing about those that topped out my experience. Here's a list of that 52, ranked in order with my favorites at the top.

1. Leviathan, Lucien Casting-Taylor, Véréna Paravel (USA/France/UK)
2. Three Sisters, Wang Bing (China/France) 2x
3. Tabu, Miguel Gomes (Portugal)
4. Neighboring Sounds, Kleber Mindonça Filho (Brazil)
5. Walker, Tsai Ming-liang (Hong Kong)
6. Emperor Visits the Hell, Li Lou (China) 2x
7. Capsule, Athina Rachel Tsangari (Greece)
8. The Last Time I Saw Macao, João Pedro Rodrigues, João Rui Guerra da Mata (Portugal)
9. No, Pablo Larrain (Chile)
10. When Night Falls, Ying Liang (China)
11. small roads, James Benning (USA)
12. In April the Following Year, There Was a Fire (Thailand)
13. When the Bough Breaks, Ji Dan (China)
14. Long Tou, Gu Changwei (Hong Kong)
15. Memories Look at Me, Song Fang (China)
16. Lawrence Anyways, Xavier Dolan (Canada)
17. Barbara, Christian Petzold (Germany)
18. Reconversão, Thom Andersen (Portugal)
19. In Another Country, Hong Sang-soo (South Korea)
20. People’s Park, J.P. Sniadecki, Libbie D. Cohn (USA/China)
21. If It’s Not Now, Then When?, James Lee (Malaysia)
22. Egg and Stone, Huang Ji (China)
23. Dust, Julio Hernández Cordón (Guatemala)
24. A Fish, Park Hong-min (South Korea)
25. This Ain’t California, Marten Persiel (Germany)
26. Sleepless Night, Jang Kun-jae
27. My Way, Ann Hui (Hong Kong)
28. McDull: The Pork of Music, Brian Tse (Hong Kong)
29. Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day, João Pedro Rodrigues (Portugal)
30. The Love Songs of Tiedan, Hao Jie (China)
31. The Metamorphosis, Yun Kinam (South Korea)
32. Leones, Jazmín López (Argentina/France/Netherlands)
33. Mystery, Lou Ye (China/France)
34. Together, Rox Hsu (Taiwan)
35. Amour, Michael Haneke (France/Germany/Austria)
36. You Are More Than Beautiful, Kim Tae Yong (Hong Kong)
37. Like Someone in Love, Abbas Kiarostami (France/Iran/Japan)
38. Reality, Matteo Garrone (Italy)
39. Paradise: Love, Ulrich Seidl (Austria)
40. Something in the Air, Olivier Assayas (France)
41. Camel Caravan, Gao Feng (China)
42. Midnight’s Children, Deepa Mehta (Canada/India)
43. Grandma Lo-Fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigridur Nielsdóttir, Orri Jónsson, Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttir, Ingibjörg Birgisdóttir (Iceland)
44. All Apologies, Emily Tang (China)
45. Design of Death, Guan Hu (China)
46. The Hunt, Thomas Vinterberg (Denmark)
47. Antiviral, Brandon Cronenberg (Canada)
48. Werewolf Boy, Jo Sung-hee (South Korea)
49. A Story for the Modlins, Sergio Oksman (Spain)
50. Garden in the Sea, Thomas Riedelsheimer (Mexico/Germany)
51. As Luck Would Have It, Álex de la Iglesia (Spain)
52. Nameless Gangster, Yoon Jong-bin (South Korea)