Friday, November 29, 2013

Vancouver International Film Festival 2013: Part Six


Based upon the true tale of a nine-year-old girl in the Philippines who was impregnated by her own father, Termitaria balances a sensationalist premise with a dispassionate approach. Director Joseph Israel Laban has a background in journalism, and it shows in the film’s probing exploration of each character’s psychology, as well as the unfussy, patient style. Under his steady hand, what could easily have been a simple melodrama turns into something more unsettling. One can see how forgiving the father’s past transgressions put him into a position to abuse his daughter, yet forgiveness remains the only way to move past this tragedy. Both parents each cling to easy rationalizations to move past what has happened, but victimized Krista (Barbara Miguel) is devoid of any illusions. The anger written on the child’s face at the end—Miguel’s bruising performance is incredible—is all the more terrible for its lack of resolution. Awful as the crime itself may be, the real horror lies in contemplating life in its aftermath.

The Missing Picture 

Rithy Panh grapples with the challenges of depicting atrocity in The Missing Picture, a deeply affecting personal account of his childhood under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Given the short supply of footage from this period in Cambodian history, Panh is forced to re-create his memories with little clay figurines, who bear witness as stoic stand-ins for the legions silenced by the regime. Yet they cannot mask the countless absences that pervade this film; this is a history book with pages ripped from the spine, where what is missing speaks as eloquently as what remains. The director recounts a litany of losses, from his brother’s disappearance to his father’s slow death by starvation (he preferred death to the indignities promised by the Khmer). Panh himself survived while carrying out the dead at a hospital, and he still carries those people with him years later—no mound of dirt is ever high enough to cover a mass grave. Wracked with survivor’s guilt, he’s torn between his fear of reliving this painful past and his duty to create a record of people and events that have all but vanished from the historical record. Poetic and pained, the film is equal parts requiem, apology and act of defiance.


Beneath the art-house gloss, GriGris is pure B-grade noir, complete with two-bit hustlers, double-crossing crooks and even a gold-hearted hooker. Writer-director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun dredges up these familiar tropes to examine lower-class life and smuggling in Chad, but the film is at its most vibrant when it ventures onto the dance floor with GriGris (Souleymane Démé). Otherwise, everything progresses the way these things do, with betrayal and heartbreak and dumb mistakes by wannabe criminals and petty thugs. Even with the paint-by-numbers plot, the film feels sloppy: GriGris is driven to crime to pay for the medical expenses of his father-in-law, who goes from sitting around at his photography studio one moment to wheezing on his death-bed the next. Still, the film does take a curious and compelling turn once it leaves the city behind for a remote African village. It’s not uncommon for a film noir to climax with a journey from the sleaze of the city to the Edenic promise of the country, but the contrast between urban and rural remains particularly sharp in underdeveloped Africa. And the film ends in a way few classic noirs ever would—as a left-field paean to girl power, where the strength of women offers salvation, instead of doom, for the man.

Camille Claudel 1915 

Can a performance be too good for a film? Camille Claudel 1915 offers an instructive example. As the titular sculptress unjustly committed to an insane asylum, Juliette Binoche is fragile, defiant, bitter—and about 10 feet taller than anyone else in the film. The rest of the cast barely registers, save perhaps Jean-Luc Vincent as Paul Claudel, Camille’s pious brother. No wonder Bruno Dumont leans so heavily on the clash between rebellious sister and priggish brother. The alternative is sitting back and letting Binoche rage against the other inmates and attendants, all of whom watch her with the same awed expression as the audience. Still, there’s something fascinating in how Dumont attempts to pare his filmmaking down to its most simple and direct form. The film is not about religious hypocrisy or patriarchal repression, however tempting it may be to read it on those terms. At the same time, the narrative, such as it is, has been undercut by history. Camille’s fate is written before the film even begins, and the only real question is whether or not she will learn to love her cage. All that remains is grace, or possibly madness. In Dumont’s world, there is little difference between the two.

Fifi Howls From Happiness 

Fifi Howls From Happiness documents the final days of Bahman Mohassess, a radical gay Iranian artist playing out his dotage in a cluttered hotel apartment in Rome. As a subject, he’s witty and combative, punctuating each bon mot with his inimitable phlegmatic, shuddering cackle. Filmmaker Mitra Farahani has crafted a sensitive and keen character study: call it a portrait of the artist as a cantankerous old coot. Never happier than when he’s pissing people off, Mohassess unsurprisingly faced a great deal of censorship in his homeland for his outspoken views (his fondness for covering his work in giant penises may have also played a factor). Recalling a request to destroy one of his sculptures, he retorts, “I am not Medea and I do not eat my own children.” Yet that is precisely what he does, crowing about the many works he has destroyed for his own private reasons. This is a man who flaunts his contradictions: he seems indifferent to posterity, but he’s not above using the film to build up his own legend. His entire life—and death, for that matter—seems one monumental act of will, and that spirit of defiance represents his artistry better than any gallery show. His work remains vital precisely because of his willingness to destroy it. Only the living can die.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Vancouver International Film Festival 2013: Part Five

Anatomy of a Paperclip 

Writer-director Ikeda Akira draws life lessons from droll weirdness in Anatomy of a Paperclip, an ultra-deadpan look at the life of Kogure, a schlubby loner consigned to the drudgery of working in an artisanal paperclip shop (which is not really a thing, but let’s just roll with it). Berated by his boss and bullied by a syphilitic street tough, our hero—shackled by an unexplained neckbrace—sits back and accepts the endless humiliations of existence with inscrutable calm. It’s only after setting free a butterfly trapped in his apartment that he begins to pull himself together, with some encouragement from a mysterious gibberish-spouting woman who invites herself into his life. The film’s humour doesn’t always work—wit this dry easily turns arid, and the film’s longueurs can drive one to contemplate just how slight this story actually is—but Ikeda’s fantastic tale gets by on screwy charm alone. Like any good fable, Anatomy of a Paperclip offers a wealth of fine moral advice, ranging from the virtue of selfless kindness to the wisdom of avoiding sketchy street vendors.

Rhymes for Young Ghouls 

First-time director Jeff Barnaby tackles the abuses of residential schools in Rhymes for Young Ghouls, but rather than a tactful history lesson he offers a blood-soaked crime saga. And why shouldn’t he? These scars are still fresh, even if the film takes place over 30 years in the past. Indeed, Barnaby is often at his best exploring the fraught relations between the generations, such as that between teenage artist–drug dealer Ayla and her fresh-out-of-prison father. But the film never fully dispels the lingering staleness of its many borrowed genre tropes, nor the blandness of the second-hand characterizations that populate much of the cast. It sounds strange to complain that the film’s representative of colonial oppression is too one-dimensional, but the Indian Agent Popper is stock villainy incarnate, lacking everything but a moustache to twirl and a cat to stroke as he plots his next cruel act. He’s a snarling manifestation of all that is vile in Canada’s treatment of aboriginals, embodying a host of ills and injustices, which are then easily dispatched with a bullet to the head. For all the film’s promise, it never quite realizes a way to reconcile social critique with Tarantinoesque revenge fantasy.

A Touch of Sin 

Wuxia by way of the arthouse, A Touch of Sin is Jia Zhangke’s L’argent—a work of unrestrained anger from a supremely restrained filmmaker. It’s not quite on the same level as Bresson’s masterpiece, but Jia nonetheless injects a newfound sense of urgency to his critiques of the pitiless modernization of China. Over the course of four segments, he looks at men and women pushed into violence by injustice and economic disparity. One man rails against the corrupt village chief; another survives as an itinerant gunsel. A woman is mistaken for a prostitute and lashes out to defend herself, while a young man moves from job to job as any hope for the future shrinks from view with every vanishing dollar. These little parables of despair and violence speak to the loneliness of a rapidly industrializing society and the impotent rage of the weak against the strong. Fittingly for such a consciously theatrical venture, the film ends with an audience watching a travelling show, with the performers singing of sin while the masses watch impassively. It’s a moment of self-reflection for Jia, who aligns his own work with a larger artistic tradition—a rare moment of continuity in a violent, changing world.


Redemption—Miguel Gomes’ short, sort-of companion to last year’s Tabu—imagines a series of melancholy inner monologues for some of the chief actors in recent European history. The soundtrack suggests we’re in for a sober reflection of the costs of power upon those who wield it; the visuals suggest something more puckish. As the actors narrate the semi-fictious personal lives of four different politicians, Gomes illustrates the speeches with seemingly irrelevant—or at the very least irreverent—stock footage. People leap from buildings and African dancers spin, offering a mocking counterpoint to the bittersweet musings of the leaders. Yet the faded images also fit with the overriding nostalgia of the monologues. Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, laments missing his daughter’s childhood, before shifting gears to contemplate the loss of his own youth. It turns out even neoliberal bagmen can cry. Decide for yourself whether they deserve pity or scorn.

The King’s Body 

Quiz time! Who was the first king of Portugal? Give yourself a pat on the back if you guessed Dom Afonso Henriques, a Galician who proclaimed himself Afonso the First. And if you guessed incorrectly, fear not, because you’re no more uninformed than the 24 Galician bodybuilders interviewed in The King’s Body. João Pedro Rodrigues quizzes the group about the king, asks about their tattoos and scar, and has them strip down to their skivvies while posing in front of a green screen. The film recreates the dead king through the body politic, but what makes the film compelling are the interviews. With a bit of gentle prodding from Rodrigues, the group speaks about the ways life has marked their bodies, and in the process many reveal a yearning for the mythological not far removed from the legendary sovereign. (One man even reveals that he has tattooed his own name on his arm in Elvish.) Considering the self-serious nature of many of these men—everyone seems really intent on appearing as badass as possible when posing with a broadsword, for instance—it would be easy for the film to lapse into derision. But Rodrigues finds something touching in these genial muscleheads. They share with the king a yearning for grandeur and myth-making, and their strength will fade as surely as his legend.


Last year, João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata teamed up to make The Last Time I Saw Macao, a unique blend of documentary, memoir and science fiction. They return to that same reality-bending format in Mahjong, but with diminishing returns. The noir-inflected plot concerns a vanished mystery woman and two agents of a shadowy organization stalking each other through Chinatown at night. The narrative is shaky at best, and it strains to hold together even a modest half-hour film. Outside of a few key images—fluttering toy hummingbirds, a warehouse of mannequins, shoes littering a pile of rubble—the film seems casting about for purpose. The directors challenge xenophobia in general and anti-Sino sentiment in particular, with one character even asking, “Why are the Chinese always the villains?” Sadly, the film runs out of steam before finding an answer.