Berlinale 2014. Impressions Part IV: On the Periphery

One more dispatch of Berlinale impressions: on Fruit Chan's _The Midnight After_ and the Golden Bear-winning _Black Coal, Thin Ice_.
Adam Cook

The tail-end of a film festival, that last stretch of endurance-testing early mornings and packed days, tends to make taking in the last bundle of films all the more difficult. Having already overdosed on the bloated selection of movies at a fest such as the Berlinale, the films begin to blend together: the ones you saw during the first few days are distant memories, and the ones happening before your eyes have to work extra hard to compete for prioritized positions in your cinema-stuffed-consciousness.

This periphery position reshapes, and, eventually, crystallizes the festival viewing experience in its varied entirety. I find that sillier, more entertaining films tend to stand out at this point, as they more easily re-spark one's (unwillingly) fading attention span. Perhaps that's why I enjoyed Fruit Chan's The Midnight After so much, despite its own unwieldy length and over-the-top tonal schizophrenia (a sort of Miike level of wacky, with less tact but just as much surprise).

Beginning with the boarding of a metro bus on the busy streets of Hong Kong, the film follows a group of transit passengers and the robust driver (played by the always welcomed on-screen presence of Lam Suet, Johnnie To's Andy Devine) as a late night drive leads to discovery of strange happenings. The streets are deserted, they are alone, left to figure out what has taken place. Strange (Japanese, it turns out) figures in gas marks appear. David Bowie musical sequences ensue, hilarious, and often violent, episodes come and go. It's the perfect late-going festival film, one that asks less of its viewer and tries hard to leave an impression. Increasingly momentous (if you're not on board at first, it's hard to be charmed by the end credits), Chan's dystopian romp at first seems like it's just spinning its wheels but eventually turns into a sly commentary on 21st century living, that while a little too on-the-nose, is too unpretentious in its delivery to be unwelcome.

What better last film to highlight than the Golden Bear-winning Black Coal, Thin Ice. What could have been an 80-minute, conventional crime story is instead a mysteriously meandering exercise in pure mood. Beginning in 1999, the film follows Zhang Zili, a detective working a multiple-murder case. A gruesome incident leaves a couple officers dead and Zhang suspended, and we skip ahead to 2004, where the ex-cop has sniffed up a lead, a femme fatale at a dry cleaners.

Diao Yinan is far more invested in the peripheral elements of the narrative landscape, emphasizing objects, spaces, lights, incidental digressions—exploring the space around the story. Rather than serve the narrative, this instead reinforces the film's secretive pacing, which consistently unfolds in focused precision, even when bursts of violence interrupt the film's almost lethargically poker-faced direction. If there is a drawback to this approach perhaps it is in how lightly these characters are felt and developed, rendered instead as gloomy figures that by necessity move things slightly forward each scene. 

The sheer diversity of visual vocabulary here is stunning, and Diao is able to command the images of every scene to conjure an odd feeling that is hard to place and articulate. How rare to encounter a film with motivations that can't be detected, that can hardly be caught up to. One senses the director approaching each scene with the thought "how do I make this as unlike anything we've seen," even if the resulting choices are subtle and discreet.

The edge of the festival is an interesting place to stand. Is it a position of more levelheaded assessment? I'm tempted to make comments on what were the best films and what deserved which awards. But perhaps, cinema, and our role as spectator, is too unpredictable in how they each evolve, ebb and flow, to ever reach any sort of set "point." Like the falsity of looking back on a year's films in December, any standpoint is arbitrary, and, I think, a little uncertainty in criticism can be liberating. Festivals are the extreme environment that reveal this most clearly. Films like Black Coal almost seem to insist we go back to the drawing board.

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