Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Vancouver International Film Festival 2012: Part Six

Three Sisters 

An unsentimental look at poverty in rural China, Wang Bing’s immersive documentary Three Sisters spends month following the lives of a peasant family making do in the shadow of the Chinese industrial colossus. Agriculture isn’t much of a way for anyone to make a living in modern times, but especially on the small scale practiced by the family here. So father heads off to the city to find work with his two youngest daughters, while his eldest stays with grandfather and minds the farm (the mother’s whereabouts are less clear, although she’s been out of the picture for a while, it seems). But Wang is less concerned with sculpting a grand narrative arc out of his material than he is with teasing out the daily rhythms of his subjects’ lives. The ordeal of separation and reunion largely exists as a backdrop to the unending grind of chasing sheep and harvesting dung from the pastures. Survival makes its own demands of life, and chores take precedence over drama.

Everybody in our Family 

Unconditional fatherly love can be a very scary thing, as evidenced by the vicious hilarity of Radu Jude’s Everybody in our Family. Early on in the film, divorced dad Marius goes to visit his own father, revealing a strained collegiality that dissolves into a torrent of accusations and abuse. Yet moments after nearly coming to blows, the pair is back to normal—such as it is—with Marius’s father even telling his son to drive safe. The scene’s horrifying (and horrifyingly funny) emotional pivots can only hint at the carnage to come. As Marius finds his efforts to spend time with his daughter rebuffed by his ex-wife’s boyfriend and mother, the man’s desperation escalates so naturally you likely won’t blink once he starts tying up people and dodging cops. Gifted with a stellar troupe of performers, Jude uses the cramped confines of a single apartment and a nimble handheld camera to emphasize the humanity of people doing inhumane things. Emotional Grand Guignol on an intimate scale, the film lays bare the extremes of love and hate that can be contained within the family unit. Like the best black comedies, the laughter sticks in the throat.

Something in the Air 

Considering how much Something in the Air draws on the radical youth of writer/director Olivier Assayas in the 1970s, it’s impressive how much the film avoids the seductive glow of nostalgia. In fact, this double-edged ode to France’s post-1968 generation is many things: brisk coming-of-age drama, political thriller, even love story (most notably between Assayas and cinema itself). Alternately giddy and mournful, the film surveys the chaos of the French left following the failed dream of the 1968 rebellion. Young feminists argue with old chauvinist radicals while Maoists cling to their delusions like European communists at the height of the Stalinist purges. Heady times, and Gilles, the director’s stand-in, wanders amid the ruins, painting and fucking his way to Italy and back in a search for purpose. Assayas shows his younger self trapped between the warring factions of politics and art, and the film’s achievement is bridging the gap. All false mistresses abandoned and all failed masters betrayed, Gilles embraces the cinema in the film’s final rapturous moments under the benediction of the Situationists (the corpse of Guy Debord appreciates the work, I’m sure). By simply succumbing to his best self, Assayas discovers his own private revolution at last.

The Compass is Carried by the Dead Man 

After the screening, writer/director Arturo Pons described his debut feature, The Compass is Carried by the Dead Man, as an “existentialist emigration” tale. It’s an apt summary of this gently absurdist fable about a boy named Chencho determined on riding a wagon all the way from Mexico to meet his brother in Chicago (God is his copilot, a corpse his navigator). Along the way, he picks up a misfit crew of others set adrift by the violence and poverty that has wracked rural Mexico: a soldier who accidentally kills his commander, professional wailing women who have run out of men to mourn, a one-eyed boy with a three-legged dog. Occasionally, the film lapses into overloaded symbolism and cutesy characterizations—the Sisyphean push-cart man who gathers rocks he has stumbled over is probably the worst of this tendency—but this isn’t so much bargain-basement surrealism as it is a documentary of everyday eccentricities. Pons sketches the splintered communities of his Mexico with affection and sorrow, while also striving for a transcendental release that seems beyond him as a filmmaker. He’s far more profound when being profane. Funnier, too.


War is hell, but so is growing up, which is perhaps why so many filmmakers love to depict war’s brutalities through the eyes of a child. Cate Shortland’s Lore offers a neat inversion of this old formula, her shell-shocked brood not ordinary innocents but doe-eyed Hitler youths. The children, led by eldest sister Lore, make their way through the devastated ruins of Germany in the dying days of World War Two after their Nazi parents are arrested. Who can resist that hook? I’m as eager as anyone to see how the children shake off their master-race programming, but the initial tension and dread dissipates into bland simplifications and overwrought visuals (Shortland never met a sun-dappled meadow she didn’t like). Final message: strict dining etiquette is equivalent to Nazism. Miss Manners is surely unamused.

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