Dispatches are beginning to come in from this year's Vancouver International Film Festival, which opened on Thursday and runs through October 14. I'll be collecting notes and links here.
"I wasn't sure how much I was going to be able to take of Markus Schleinzer's Michael, at first, given that it begins as the Jeanne Dielman of Austrian kidnapper-pedophile movies," writes Jim Emerson. Fortunately, once the opening title appears on the screen it gets better…. Oddly, just before I came to Vancouver I watched the documentary, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, which detailed how the director labored to transfer the audiences ambivalent sympathies for the shower-slaughtered Marion Crane to the mother-hen-pecked son and motel manager Norman Bates, who finds himself in the position of having to clean up after his mother's mess. There's none of that in Michael — not a bit of audience-implicating suspense that he might slip up and get caught, just the fervent hope that he will."
Kristin Thompson: "For those who complain about 'effects-heavy' blockbusters, [Lech Majewski's] The Mill & and Cross is a powerful counter-example, a film utterly dependent on CGI yet meditative and even profound."
David Bordwell: "We frequently find that an art film flaunts some arresting narrational devices at the start before taming it as things move along. (Think of 8½'s bold opening, initiating us into Guido's fantasy world, in effect teaching us how to watch the film.) Similarly, [Nuri Bilge Ceylan's] Once Upon a Time in Anatolia gets more linear and psychological as it goes along."
Sean Axmaker at the House Next Door on Dendera: "Though this is described as a sequel to The Ballad of Narayama, it really more of a reaction to the sensibility of the novel and the film through a geriatric Amazon fantasy of old women, abandoned to die in the elements, turned into survivalist warriors who thrive in their barbarian Shangri-la. I love the elemental quality of the film — the snow-covered winter mountains of yesteryear Japan — the ferocity of the vengeance that drives their will to survive, even the grizzled monster mama bear who declares war in the women's tribe. But director Tengan Daisuke (son of Narayama director Imamura Shohei) never captures the unforgiving cruelty or the otherworldly beauty that defines Narayama and fails to connect with the lives of the women beyond lip service to the fury at being discarded by the village patriarchy." Nippon Cinema has a trailer.
At Parallax View, Sean asks, wrapping his capsule review of Han Jie's Mr. Tree, "seriously, has there ever been a Chinese mining town drama with a sunny outlook on the future? Produced by Jia Zhangke." As for Zou Peng's Sauna on Moon (image at the top), it's "[a]nother portrait of the new business culture of China, this one set in a sauna and massage parlor with benefits in Macau, the growing vacation center of southern China. This isn’t the den of drug addicts and indentured women imprisoned by gangsters but a modern business run by a hard-working boss who is more manager than pimp." Overall, "less a classic narrative than snapshots of a life in progress, the old brothel model being remade as a modern business and a communal effort: just one big, happy family that happens to be in the sex trade. And making quite a go of it too." Critic.de has a trailer.
Updates, 10/5: "Last year, in 'Seduced by structure,' I wrote about films that worked ingratiatingly with flashbacks, stories within stories, and the like. I'm still a sucker for these things, and several of the offerings at the Vancouver International Film Festival have enticed me." David Bordwell on Takashi Miike's Harakiri: Death of a Samurai, Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In and Charliebebs Gohetia's The Natural Phenomenon of Madness.
"Within the emerging genre of independent Mainland Chinese documentaries, Yu Guangyi has surfaced as a director skilled in the techniques of from-the-ground-up cinema verity," writes Kathie Smith in Twitch. "Bachelor Mountain is the final chapter in his 'Hometown Trilogy' that expands on what the director started in Timber Gang (2006) and Survival Song (2008). With a gentle and unadorned vibe, Bachelor Mountain combines sweeping social commentary and a personal affair of the heart."
Updates, 10/9: Sampling from his latest roundup at the House Next Door, here's Sean Axmaker on My Back Page: "Named after a Bob Dylan song (singular noun aside) and based on an autobiographical novel about a young journalist caught up in the unrest and social ambivalence of the student protests of the early seventies, Yamashita Nobuhiro's expansive drama is epic in scope and intimate in approach. Sawada (Tsumabuki [Satoshi]), against his better judgment and even better advice from a sympathetic senior colleague, puts his trust in Umeyama (Matsuyama Kenichi), a self-styled activist whose soft-spoken manner and easy charisma has attracted a small cell of acolytes without actually articulating (and possibly not really knowing himself) his intentions. Yamashita presents a dense recreation of the era largely through the cultural sensibility of the newsroom and the reporter bars as contrasted with the cell group meetings and interviews with activists in hiding, and in Sawada he offers the most confused and at times misguided character of the entire festival. While the film can't possibly encapsulate the era in this one journey, it comes pretty close to communicating the contradictions and confusion and ambivalence in one man's odyssey."
Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Headshot is "a great piece of stylish, badass neo-noir cinema," writes Erik McClanahan for the Playlist. "It's part Blast of Silence, part The Killer, with elements of a Bourne-style on-the-run thriller and, in the film's freshest contribution to the assassin genre, steeped in Buddhist philosophy." Adds Kathie Smith at Twitch: "With a striking sense of ease and control, Ratanaruang steers his eighth feature through the paces of political, police and underworld manipulations, allowing it to nearly float to its uninhibited conclusion." Earlier, a less-impressed Dan Sallitt here in the Notebook from Toronto.
Josh Timmermann on Quattro Hong Kong 2, from one of the two Vancouver roundups he's posted so far: "The MVP of this Hong Kong Film Festival-commissioned shorts collection is Open Verdict by Ho Yuhang (director of the superb, and inexplicably under-mentioned, feature At the End of the Daybreak). Shot in the smoky black and white of early Jim Jarmusch, and possessing a similarly droll sense of (visual and verbal) humor, Ho's film is a sly and playful exercise in the negotiation of national and ethnic identification in contemporary East Asia. As a Malaysian national of Chinese descent, Ho joked in his post-screening Q&A about how in Hong Kong he is typically referred to as a Malay, a term that more accurately describes Malaysia's aboriginal population. This general point regarding fuzzy trans-cultural misconceptions is clearly wired into the DNA of his story of an illegal snake-smuggling operation and the customs officers diligently, if haplessly, trying to infiltrate it. As for the the other three offerings: Apichatpong's entry, M Hotel, in which two young men sit on a hotel balcony having an unintelligible (and unsubtitled) conversation that sounds as if it were recorded underwater, is certainly interesting but essential only for 'Joe' die-hards; Stanley Kwan's fine if forgettable 13 Minutes in the Life Of... charts the titular passage of time as a bus travels from the airport into the city; Brillante Mendoza's lead-off Purple, hampered by awkwardly phrased English-language voice-over work that spoils its modest verite charms, is the only dud of the bunch."
Adam Cook is grading films at the rate of about three a day at Lightning History.
Update, 10/11: "Mohammad-Ali Talebi's Wind & Fog recalls the classic Iranian films of the 1980s and early 1990s, simple stories centered around children's quests," writes Kristin Thompson. "Talebi himself is a veteran director whose career stretches back to the mid-1980, an era when major filmmakers were skirting the censors by focusing on children and seemingly uncontroversial situations. Wind & Fog is set in the north of Iran, during the early days of the Iran-Iraq war — a safe enough era, since the loyalty to the government during such a conflict would be unquestionable." What's more, the story moves toward "the sort of happy ending that is rare in the contemporary adult-oriented dramas reaching festivals."
Updates, 10/17: David Bordwell notes that the awards have been presented and then moves right on into his readings of the Dreileben trilogy, Pen-ek's Headshot and Hirokazu Kore-eda's I Wish: "A family has split up. One brother, Koichi, stays with his mother and grandparents in Kagoshima, where the volcano splutters ashes into the air. The younger brother, toothily grinning Ryu, has gone off to Fukuoka with father, a scruffy rock guitarist. The boys communicate by phone, hoping to reunite the family…. Despite lacking the fanciness of the modern network narrative and its disjunctive time schemes and viewpoint switches, Kore-eda's plot, like that of Ozu's Early Summer, effortlessly creates a ramifying world in which our boys feel at once comfortable and apprehensive. Come to think of it, some of the kid comedy recalls the two brothers' antics of I Was Born But, and the surprisingly sympathetic young teachers, reminiscent of the adults in Ohayo, become co-conspirators and, a little bit, surrogate parents. I Wish is a modest movie; it almost lowers its eyes in front of you. It's also the closest thing to perfection that I saw in Vancouver."
Josh Timmermann lists his Vancouver top ten.