Thursday, October 24, 2013

Vancouver International Film Festival 2013: Part Two

Stray Dogs 

Will no one shed a tear for Miss Big Boobs? The surrogate mother of a homeless brother and sister, she meets a grisly end when the children’s father, drunk and weeping, devours her. (Fortunately, she’s just a cabbage with a face drawn on it, but don’t let that numb you to the tragedy inherent to the situation.) Tsai Ming-Liang fills Stray Dogs with such bizarre touches, which will surely confound viewers expecting a more traditional social-realist vision of poverty. Instead, the director combines a vivid sense of physical reality with a dream-like narrative. The children pass through the city unnoticed; life carries on, unaware of the hungry ghosts that haunt the streets. Tsai pushes his shots to such lengths that they begin to add to this feeling of unreality, and the result is not only a stylistic tour de force but one of the most powerfully direct films in his career. As others have mentioned, poverty is a recurring theme in his work, but the film also poignantly touches on one of his other great concerns—time and entropy, particularly as seen in the aging face of his eternal lead actor, Lee Kang-Sheng. In one of the greatest and most challenging scenes in the entire film, a woman stares at a mural in an empty factory until the rocky shore depicted in the crumbling painting seems to blend with the rubble-strewn floor of the abandoned building. Watch anything long enough and you can glimpse the decay.


Part documentary and part performance art, Yumen strives to transform an abandoned Chinese oil town into something poetic and beautiful. In theory, I’m on board for that—let’s make us some art, fuck yeah!—but in practice the po-mo whimsy of rabbits hopping happily amid the ruins and naked people standing on pillars and et cetera tends to drag. Filmmakers Xu Ruotao, J.P. Sniadecki and Huang Xiang are making playhouses out of rubble, leading to a film that feels, perhaps intentionally, like a collection of discarded scenes and half-formed ideas. In its more lucid moments—like the scene of a woman strolling through a crowded market while quietly singing Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown”—the film skillfully evokes the loneliness and longing that lie at the heart of this desolate place. People vanish, and art springs up like flowers on a grave. It’s an affecting idea, but the film is too scattershot to fully develop it. Every beautiful and surprising image is balanced with a stale idea—shiny pop songs echoing through dead spaces, faded film stock for a faded memory.


Diederik Ebbinge’s Matterhorn may be little more than a genial but largely unambitious parody of parochial bitterness, but there’s something to be said for a crowd-pleaser that conducts itself with a little restraint and self-respect. Ton Kas plays Fred, a dour widower living a life so cloistered and lonely one can practically smell the mustiness of his neatly ordered home (the persistent fly forever buzzing around his kitchen is a nice touch). But his life is upended by the presence of semi-mute Theo (René van ’t Hof), who, aside from the occasional animal noise or impolitic outburst, spends most of his time in a catatonic stupor. In a bizarro-Pygmalion setup, Fred makes a project of training Theo in the ways of civilized society, which involves a brief detour through the world of children’s entertainment for reasons better left to the film to explain. Needless to say, the community does not approve, and from there it’s a flurry of cabaret singing, cross-dressing, and fisticuffs before all is right with the world once more. Building a film around the clash between a stuffed shirt and an unkempt weirdo is hardly new, but Ebbinge deftly uses eccentric comedy to keep this paean to tolerance from drowning in sentiment. 

Our Sunhi 

Another assured outing from Hong Sang-Soo, Our Sunhi finds the director sifting through the minutia of romantic entanglement with his characteristic wit and playful sense of structure. It’s another exploration of the sex lives of high-functioning alcoholics, with the focus this time on a young female film student who must parry the unwanted affection of three different men. As always, repetition is key to understanding Hong’s world. Phrases crop up again and again in unexpected places: the clichés of a reference letter from Sunhi’s smitten professor are echoed by two rival suitors, growing more ludicrous with each repetition. (According to everyone, Sunhi has artistic sense, whatever the hell that means.) It’s one of the film’s funniest gags, but also one of its most pointed. Everyone has this woman figured out, yet no one apparently knows the first thing about what she actually wants—least of all Sunhi herself, who seems in the midst of a mid-20s identity crisis of some sort. What else can she do but rebel against the smothering attentions of this love-struck trio? The men hold on to the fantasy, while the real thing slips away.

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