Sunday, October 14, 2012

Vancouver International Film Festival 2012: Part Four


The audacity of Tsai Ming-Liang’s Walker lies in its simplicity. Lee Kang-Sheng, Tsai’s favourite actor, dons bright red monk robes and walks down the bustling streets of Hong Kong—but slowly, very slowly. Shots are held for minutes at a time, mirroring the glacial pace of our faux-monk friend, whose every step seems to occur in super slo-mo. At times, this short film resembles a kind of artful “Where’s Waldo?” as Tsai buries the monk deep inside the frame, forcing viewers to scan for that telltale splash of red. Other times he’s front and centre, standing in the middle of a busy street as onlookers gawk and snap photos (the crowd parts around the man, as if repelled by a force field). Either way, every shot is a living tableau, rich in detail and unexpected beauty in a cinematic experience of unparalleled purity.


Style and substance do battle for the heart of modern politics in Pablo Larrain’s No, and the results are about as shocking as an Iranian election. But more than a mordant political satire, Larrain’s retelling of the referendum that brought down Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship is also a brisk, funny piece of high-powered filmmaking. Fortunately, even as he delivers his most mainstream work to date, the director remains his stubbornly eccentric self. The film’s washed-out video aesthetic is just as much a rejoinder to commercial slickness as it is a riff on the dated look of its 1980s setting. The decision to focus on the boldly irreverent advertising campaign against Pinochet yields much humour, while Gael Garcia Bernal’s conflicted adman provides the pathos. His haunted look at the end speaks to the powerful anxieties just beneath the surface of this otherwise jubilant tale. Once he sold freedom—now he sells soap operas.


First-time director Vorakorn Ruetaivanichkul (or Billy, if you prefer) looks to his own life for inspiration and settles squarely on his mother. No wonder—the woman seems on the verge of self-destructing, with a broken leg and weak kidneys hobbling her body while depression and kleptomania cripple her mind. Billy blends documentary footage of his family with fictional tangents, but the technique is mostly one of expediency (he wasn’t there to film his mother stealing from a grocery store, so he re-creates it with actors instead). Sadly, the jumble of reality and fiction leaves each scene unmoored. A painful sequence where the director captures his mother sobbing helplessly as someone off-camera browbeats the anguished woman over her failings is so isolated from the rest of the film that the powerful emotions stirred up are only muffled. The last thing we see is Billy’s message, “This is what I can do”—an admission of the film’s loving sincerity, as much as its own shortcomings.

Mekong Hotel 

Most films from Apichatpong Weerasethakul feel like overgrown trees deep in the jungle, entangled in the surrounding world and teeming with life. Mekong Hotel, on the other hand, is more like a meagre sapling on a well-groomed lawn. That may be partly due to the film’s unusual origins: based on an old script, it forms the kernel of a larger project currently underway. Everything that you would expect of Apichatpong is here, from the familiar faces in the cast to the flattened mysticism of the story. Scenes of entrail-eating ghosts and thwarted love affairs mix with offhand moments from the film’s own creation, such as the soundtrack being recorded and the director advising his star to wear the tight pants. The director’s fascination with the hazy border between truth and fiction remains, but only in its most rudimentary form. At most, the film holds a passing interest as a sort of sketchbook, offering viewers little more than the unfinished doodles of a keen mind.

In Another Country 

A typical Hong Sang-Soo interrogation of feckless masculinity gets a shot in the arm from a game Isabelle Huppert, providing a welcome dash of culture-clash comedy to In Another Country. That may sound unlikely at first—cultural differences are more often sources of lazy humour—but Hong’s eternal preoccupations ensure the film strays from the ordinary rather quickly. Huppert plays three different French women in South Korea alternately fending off or inviting the advances of the locals in an unending quest for some kind of happiness. The casual tone and goofy bonhomie belies Hong’s meticulous construction, which lays bare the unseen patterns that shape his character’s lives, for good and ill. With its intricate layers of interlaced fictions and dreams, all blurred together with constant repetition, the film could easily be mistaken for a surrealist comedy of manners akin to Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

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