Friday, October 8, 2010

Vancouver International Film Festival 2010: Part Three

Thomas Mao
Consider me charmed. Here we have a culture clash comedy that actually breaks free of the stifling clichés of the genre and creates something unique and truly engaging. The film merges documentary and fiction by using an entirely imagined context to examine the relationship between two real people—Thomas Rohedewald, friend of and model for Chinese painter Mao Yan. However, in the film, Thomas plays the artist, and he comes across Mao running an inn on a remote Chinese plain. Director Zhu Wen finds the expected humour in miscommunication, but he takes these ideas to some strange places. A typically garbled exchange between the two men involves Thomas contemplating the existence of life on other planets while Mao replies that yes, it will snow in October. Rather than leave the joke at that, the film combines the two ideas into a single entity, giving us the lovely spectacle of aliens landing at Mao’s inn during a nighttime snowfall. The film’s skewed sensibilities go even further with a second part that portrays Thomas and Mao in something more closely resembling their real-life personas (although still not quite documentary fact). As Wen explained after the screening, the first part can be seen as a house, and the second part as its reflection. The two are inseparable from each other and yet uniquely different—much like Thomas and Mao, it could be said.

Crossing the Mountain
Even by the standards of the slow, painfully slow art film, Crossing the Mountain is a challenge. There’s presumably a narrative in this Chinese film, but it’s buried as deep as a stone idol from a long-dead tribe. Set in a remote village, the film hints at violence. We see armed squads and hear talk of the dangers of unexploded grenades in the jungle. People tell stories of past human sacrifices (the head of a man with a beard and long hair is good for the rice crops, apparently). A stunning (and stupefyingly long) shot of two people watching a funeral procession in the distance is punctuated by several distant explosions, with clouds of dust cascading down a far-away mountain. The film carries a tantalizing aura of mystery and death. It prickles my imagination even as it numbs my mind. I don’t want to hate, but I don’t know how to love!!!!!!DOESNOTCOMPUTE0100110100101

Sorry, but I don’t know what I can say about this one. Director Rui Yang has undoubtedly created something beautiful—I just don’t know what that something is, and after a long day of festival going I’m certainly in no shape to find out (apparently I shouldn’t struggle with the avant-garde too close to my bedtime). With so little in the way of coherent narrative, each scene becomes its only element, removed from any organizing pattern, an artifact of the present. As an aesthetic experience, there is something to be said for this. Even if you’re half-asleep, you can be lulled into the film’s beauty as if it were a waking dream (I can testify to the lusciousness of the film’s sound design, which is quite enveloping if you shut your eyes—just to rest them, of course). But I don’t feel like I can seriously speak to the film’s merits at this point, without repeated viewings. I sense something moving just below the surface, and that’s all I can say for now.

In the Shadows
A quiet German film about a man fresh out of prison and restoring contact with his old criminal friends. Seriously, another one of those. But Thomas Arslan approaches the clichés by completely underplaying the drama, turning the story into something so banal it almost becomes original. There are the usual corrupt cops and implacable low-lifes, as well as our ex-con, Trojan, who is planning an armored car robbery with a few old associates. Obviously, things go wrong—the violence in this film has the cold, sickening feeling of slabs of meat being dropped on the floor. There’s none of the usual crime-movie glamour here, nothing grandiose in this modest drama. It’s almost like a documentary of these clichés, trying to provide us a new perspective on an old story by removing the usual excitement and stylistic flash. A respectable approach, and perhaps the only way to successfully film this kind of plot anymore, even if I ultimately would prefer that Arslan avoided these worn-out tropes altogether.

Surviving Life
Although I was initially disappointed by this film in comparison to director Jan Svankmajer’s last feature—Lunacy, with its deliriously macabre combination of Poe and de Sade—there’s still a lot to appreciate in this deliberately ugly, but often funny film. Svankmajer mixes photo cut-out animation with live action (including plenty of his trademark close-ups of mouths—no dancing meat this time around, though), achieving an effect that is jarring but also surprisingly fluid. The unnatural aesthetic allows for dream and reality to remain indistinguishable, which is perhaps Svankmajer’s intention, even if he does begin the film by explaining he is doing this strictly to save money. I suppose we should be grateful that an eccentric like Svankmajer can find any sort of budget to make a film at all.

The story itself is a mish-mash of psychoanalytical humour. Eugene, a middle-aged office clerk, finds himself falling in love with a woman in his dreams, which turns out to be his anima (that is to say, his mother). He impregnates her—a rather sneaky way of inserting a bit of incest into the film—and develops a sort of dream-life infidelity that angers his wife. Freud and Jung duke it out on the walls of his therapist, who thinks having sex with Eugene will resolve all of this angst and frustration. Surprisingly, this does somehow cohere in the end, and while the film doesn’t really feel like first-rate Svankmajer, it’s too witty and imaginative to be a waste of time.

Mysteries of Lisbon
Somewhere around the middle point of this four and a half hour epic, perhaps just after the latest random supporting character has decided to tell us their entire sordid life story, you might reasonably wonder just what sort of nonsense you’ve committed yourself to watching. Brilliant, beautiful nonsense, that’s what. Raul Ruiz’s epic adaptation of the eponymous mid-19th century Portuguese novel (unavailable in English, to the best of my knowledge) is on the surface nothing more than ravishing soap opera silliness, but he brings a sophistication and intelligence that adds greatly to the experience. So yes, random monk, tell me about your wayward youth, because I would dearly, dearly love to hear more.

The story is an overstuffed concoction of false identities and secret affairs, perhaps best described as an elaborate costume ball played out over the span of a hundred years and five countries. Pedro, a young boy of unknown parentage, lives in a boarding school where his closest parental figure is the kindly Father Dinis (himself a former gypsy slave trader and Napoleonic soldier, among other identities across the continent). After a violent altercation with another student, Pedro falls into a feverish state where a mystery woman, apparently his mother, visits him. His noble roots are uncovered in an ever expanding circle of coincidences and chance meetings, a beautiful organized chaos mirrored by the graceful peregrinations of Ruiz’s camera, which argues more persuasively for the art of the long take than any other film I’ve seen in the past decade.

Ruiz is capable of a remarkably tricky tone, poised somewhere between sincerity and ironic mockery. He is clearly aware of the absurdity of the plot, but nonetheless savours it as a platform for meditation upon many things—the art of storytelling and the nature of history and memory, for instance. Each character holds another fragment of the central tragedy, creating a sense of history as something shared, a communal storytelling in which each person passes off the tale to the next teller, and on and on until a grand saga is at last revealed. But Ruiz encourages viewers to look at the story from the outside as well—a favourite example of this being the beggars at the end, who scoff at how what is the common stuff of life for the poor becomes unbearable tragedy for the nobility. That’s all part of the essential generosity of Ruiz’s vision here, which even allows space for criticism of the complex world it invests so much time and energy in creating.

No comments: