Saturday, October 8, 2011

Vancouver International Film Festival 2011: Part Three

Cinema Komunisto 

What happens to a nation’s cinema when the nation itself disappears? That’s the question that haunts Cinema Komunisto, Mila Turajlic’s mournful tour through the history of Yugoslavia’s national cinema. Aside from the occasional musical ode to Tito and the odd scene of bright young communists talking about how wonderful it is to do manual labour, the film largely avoids the obvious kitschy value of old propaganda. Indeed, Turajlic has little interest in exploring the tricky intersection of propaganda and reality. She also lacks the formal gusto or analytical insight to reinvigorate these films for a new time, which means all Cinema Komunisto offers is a lot of white-haired directors and actors standing in dusty warehouses reminiscing about the good old days. I came hoping for a raucous wake, but all I got was a polite eulogy.

A Simple Life 

When Ah Tao, a film producer’s maid, suffers a stroke, her employer offers to pay for her residency at an old age home—it seems the only decent thing to do, considering she has served his family for 60 years. Based on the real relationship between producer Roger Lee and his maid, Ann Hui’s A Simple Life is richly rewarding and quietly moving. It’s a potentially grim subject, but Hui approaches the story with resolve and warm humour, even as she refuses to shy away from the loneliness and fear that come with aging. Shot largely under the harsh fluorescent light of a Hong Kong retirement home, the film evokes the intimacy and unvarnished look of a documentary. But this is no sweeping exploration of what it means to be elderly in modern Hong Kong, nor does Hui care to offer any thesis on the bond between Roger and Ah Tao. No, the film is nothing more or less than a gesture of respect from one human being to another, a final duty and a kindness. Simple, not simplistic.

Quattro Hong Kong 2 

A short film package commissioned by the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and as varied and confounding as the city itself. The only stipulation the four directors apparently received was that they should try to film in Hong Kong, and each approached the task from strikingly different angles. However, the package kicks off with its weakest effort, an unimaginative, clumsy short from Brillante Mendoza depicting two emigrants to the city buying flowers—an older man buying for his dead wife on their anniversary, and a younger man for his girlfriend after a fight. But Ho Yuhang’s oddball black-and-white crime comedy marks a considerable improvement. Featuring python smuggling and other assorted curios, the film invests even its throwaway characters with personality and wit, creating the sense of a fully developed world in just 20 minutes. It’s charming and frequently funny, if a bit scattered.

Apichatpong Weersethakul’s contribution, on the other hand, is narrowly focused on two men sitting by the window of a single hotel room—aside from a couple of enigmatic shots of the courtyard below, we don’t see anything else. The trick is that the image is grainy and washed out, while the sound is muffled and buried beneath the burbling of water (is this life in the fishbowl?). A voyeuristic film in which there’s nothing to see, Weersethakul’s film is formally playful and even a little beautiful, but it’s also a minor effort from a major talent. The last film, from Stanely Kwan, is possibly the strongest of the bunch. Set on a bus ride into Hong Kong, it captures the divide between the city and mainland China through the overheard conversations of passengers. It’s a thoughtful, affecting work, almost as finely tuned and elegant as the music from Bach that closes out the film.

Low Life 

A gloomy, doomy, dull work from Nicolas Klotz and Elisabeth Perceval, the best I can say for Low Life is that it ends better than it began. The film charts the collision between a group of undergrads and illegal immigrants, and the results are unsurprisingly sophomoric. Early scenes with the pseudo-poetic, self-absorbed Charles drain the air out of the film, and it never really comes back, although things improve considerably once focus shifts to the love affair between a young student named Carmen and Hussein, an Afghani asylum-seeker. When the French government rejects his application for asylum, the relationship between the pair becomes a kind of crime against the state, and the film becomes suddenly urgent. Chilling signs of police surveillance and oppression abound, giving the film a nightmarish quality that at last justifies the numbing dread that has been there from the get-go. But I’m really only speaking about the last half-hour or so—the rest of the film is grimly aimless and wrapped up in a punishing score that sounds vaguely like Joy Division on barbiturates. What little fire the film stirs up with its political rage is snuffed out by its flat tone and stifling moodiness.

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