Thursday, October 13, 2011

Vancouver International Film Festival 2011: Part Four

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga 

Has Werner Herzog become a brand? I fear so, because a film like Happy People seems designed almost solely to bank on his credibility as the going master-eccentric of the documentary form. Herzog co-directs with Dmitry Vasyukov and narrates, but he didn't have a hand in filming and it shows in every frame. This documentary about the isolated trappers of the Taiga region of Siberia is prime Herzog material—lonely men facing the majesty and mystery of nature—but it lacks the meditative qualities of his more personal documentaries, to say nothing of his unpredictable questions and endlessly wandering camera eye. The film is by no means terrible, but it is hardly any more distinguished than what you might find on the Discovery Channel on a Sunday afternoon. If anything, the film only proves the unique value of Herzog as a presence in the field. We may learn about the lifestyle and working methods of the trappers, but that’s about it. One imagines that the first question on Herzog’s tongue in this frigid wasteland would not have been how they live there, but rather why. The absence of that particular line of questioning is sorely felt in this mundane, uninspiring effort.

Here There 

Here There, Lu Sheng’s debut feature, weaves together three wayward threads, ranging from a Chinese student in Paris to a reindeer farmer in Mongolia and a young noodle restaurant employee in Shanghai. Lu subtly hints at the links between the three worlds, but he never stresses these ties—this is, after all, a film less about connection than separation. Still, the film’s reluctance to clarify its characters is not always the wisest strategy, especially when trying to cram so much into a slender 90-minute frame. The most notable casualty of this structure is the brief love affair between the restaurant employee and an insurance agent, which ends so suddenly that the tragedy barely even registers. But the cast—consisting of both professional and non-professional actors—acquits itself well with the material, and the final result is a thoughtful, if sometimes underwhelming work.

The Day He Arrives 

--> If you’ve ever seen a Hong Sang-soo film, you’ll already know the contents of The Day He Arrives. All the usual elements are here: lonely men, frustrated women, awkward romantic entanglements, and a great deal of social drinking. (At one point during the screening, the woman sitting next to me leaned over and exclaimed, “They must have spent their entire budget on beer!”) Yet Hong continues to refine his world in this latest effort, creating a witty, melancholy film that feels small without ever seeming slight. This time around, we’ve got a director visiting an old friend in Seoul, where he encounters an old flame, an aspiring actress, some film students, a lot of booze, and a perpetually late bar proprietress. In its repetitions, The Day He Arrives suggests a film trying to rewrite itself, struggling to find a combination that somehow breaks its characters free from the monotony of their lonely, blinkered lives. The scenes blur together, revealing a group of compulsive people beholden to their own bad habits, always finding new ways to fall into old traps. It’s life reduced to a series of running gags—hilarious, and pitiless.

It’s the Earth Not the Moon 

Goncalo Tocha begins It’s the Earth Not the Moon with a promise to film each of Corvo’s 440 residents (or 450, estimates vary), and even more—every cow, every pig, every single living thing on this tiny, rustic island off the coast of Portugal. By the time he gets around to filming the village dump with its attendant bird life, you may begin to suspect this is no idle boast. Over three hours and 14 chapters, Tocha explores every conceivable facet of the island—the scenic vistas, the local history (whale hunting used to be a major industry), colourful characters (a dancer performs in a mossy glen), and yes, even the local livestock. As a documentary, the film is almost naively generous, endlessly curious and beautifully expansive. Tocha may lack the ruthless analytical instincts of an editor, but he possesses the fine eye of a painter, and he fills the film with striking images plucked from the endless churn of his many days on the island.

One of the few storylines—if you could even call it that—found in the entire film involves an elderly island resident knitting Tocha a beret similar to those worn by the whale fishermen of old. The beret will allow him to be a genuine Corvo man, the woman explains. Tocha’s obsessive desire to capture the island in its entirety is bound up with his desire to become a part of it, even if local residents seem bemused by the strange presence of this film crew (one woman enters a friend’s house, laughing about these fools following her around). Shots featuring the shadow of the director abound; Tocha exists like a shade on the margins on the film, part of the world and yet not quite within it. The tension is finally resolved in a breathtakingly simple and moving shot of a cloud crossing the sun and swallowing up Tocha’s shadow in a wave of darkness. At last, if only for a flickering moment, he merges with the landscape. Don’t think of this as a documentary—think of it as a documentary maker’s dream.

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