Friday, October 8, 2010

Vancouver International Film Festival 2010: Part Two

A Somewhat Gentle Man
The latest example of a loosely defined genre that could be termed Scandinavian deadpan—those films where lots of pasty, sad-looking people stand around chatting endlessly in uninflected tones about ridiculous things. A fair example: Ulrik, just released from prison, meets up with two former criminal associates who begin arguing over whether or not he was supposed to be released from prison today or tomorrow. Gentle absurdity rules the day, and the film plays a game of thwarted desires. Women repeatedly throw themselves at Ulrik when all he wants to do is sit down and eat. His criminal buddies want him to kill the man who ratted him out when all he wants to do is to live a quiet, good life as a mechanic. The film is certainly funny, even if the humour starts to taste a bit sour after a while (much of it is based on the basic ugliness or stupidity of the characters). However, a touch of violence is required for the crime story to play out, and this is where the film shows its weakness. Once that dark cloud appears, the film loses its bearings—it can’t quite find a believable way to resolve the drama and maintain the comedy.

When Mija, the grandmother protagonist of Lee Chang-dong’s excellent Poetry, is told that her Alzheimer’s disease will cause her to first forget nouns, and then verbs, she sighs fretfully, telling the doctor that the nouns are the most important words. But for Mija, verbs are what give her the most difficulty. She struggles throughout the film with finding the correct course of action in response to her slowly collapsing world. Mija (a complex and powerful performance by Yoon Jeong-hee, who came out of a 16-year retirement for the role) is a woman faced with some difficult moral questions. She ekes out a modest living with a part-time maid job for an elderly stroke victim, who takes Viagra and wants her to make him feel like a man again, much to Mija’s disgust. Meanwhile, her grandson is accused of raping a classmate recently driven to suicide. In the faint hope of avoiding a scandal, Mija must pay off the mother of the dead girl. At the same time, she seeks relief in the form of a poetry writing class.

What might seem overbearingly trite—a journey of self-discovery through the art of poetry—is instead something subtler. The actions Mija settles upon are perhaps not the wisest or even most moral choices, but they are the only ones she has left in her vocabulary by the end. And the film’s final sequence serves as an eloquent demonstration of the necessities of art. Only by learning to speak for someone else does Mija at last find her own voice.

Winter Vacation
Li Hongqi’s Winter Vacation might be one of the weirdest and most unexpected pleasures of the entire festival for me. There were a fair number of walkouts when I attended, but if you’re on this film’s wavelength you’ll be aching with laughter. This is a comedy of nothingness—pauses and blank stares, empty lots and dead space. The film is essentially a series of vaguely related vignettes focusing on a group of bored kids on their winter vacation. Every actor is directed for maximum stiffness, heightening the absurdity of each awkward conversation. In this strangely lifeless industrial village, children say they want to grow up to be orphans and father keeps forgetting to take his medicine. Everyone sleepwalks through a slow-motion farce on the tedium of wasted lives.

The only reference point I can think of for this idiosyncratic sense of humour is Sweden’s Roy Andersson, who specializes in a more apocalyptic variant. So to give a sense of the film’s peculiar charms, it’s probably easiest just to describe a typical gag: a woman goes to a cabbage seller and begins peeling off the wilted outer leaves before handing the vegetable to the vendor, who then weighs it, taking his time fiddling with the measures and just generally drawing out the process to absurd lengths. They haggle on the price, settling on $2.10, but when the woman opens her purse she says that she doesn’t have the $0.10. Exasperated, the vendor agrees to sell the cabbage for $2.00, and as the woman leaves, she grabs up all the leaves she had peeled off. “It would just go to waste otherwise,” she explains, scurrying away. That’s a long walk for a short gag, but so what? A good stroll improves the constitution, I say.

After Nicholas, a young Georgian filmmaker, finds his work banned at home, he heads abroad to France for a bit of free expression, only to discover a new set of barriers comparable to what he left behind. Director Otar Iosseliani has a lot of interesting points to make here about art under oppression and the plight of the expatriate filmmaker, but he also has an irritating tendency towards cuteness, including the rather questionable addition of a mermaid. I suppose this is some sort of symbol for Nicholas being swept away by his artistic indulgences, but it could just as easily be Iosseliani who is being dragged under by own whimsy. Still, there’s a lot of admirable wisdom in this film, and it possesses a hazy, meandering sort of beauty at times, despite its unevenness. In his final, best joke, Iosseliani also suggests that even if you are free to say what you want, there is no guarantee that anyone will listen—or that what you are saying is even worth listening to. A pity Iosseliani didn’t apply this self-questioning instinct to improving the film itself.

Sadly, this film about a sentient rubber tire that explodes people’s heads with its telepathic abilities is not the cult oddity you would hope. Mind you, it’s still an oddity, but more of a high-concept, self-aware meta-film than campy horror. A stirring manifesto kicks things off as a character looks into the camera and delivers an impassioned defense of the “no reason” aspect of art, the senseless whims that can be found in every film (“Why is E.T. brown? No reason!”). An audience is transported into the middle of a desert to watch the film through binoculars. Characters in the film attempt to poison the spectators in the hopes that they can finish the film early if no one is watching. And yes, a tire rolls around, following a beautiful young woman like a horror-movie stalker, and blowing up random animals and the occasional human head. It’s funnier than you would expect, and mastermind Quentin Dupieux has a passion for the aesthetic possibilities of man-made objects that makes for a weirdly pretty ode to the inanimate. Dupieux reserves his most loving gaze for the tire, while the humans are treated more like props. Still, precocious high-concept trash only goes so far, and by the end I found myself yearning for a bit of low-concept reality after all this empty cleverness.

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