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53rd London Film Festival: A Round-Up

Above: Pema Tsedan’s The Search.

Now that the red carpets on Leicester Square have furled, the maddening din over square-jawed celebrities, and anthropomorphic foxes recede into distant memory, we can now safely cast a selected glance back at this year's London International Film Festival high and low lights. As is inevitable with a festival round up, we look for themes, or—with want for a better word—tropes to associate an otherwise geopolitical program. Fortunately some convenient ones did arise.

Most compelling of them was, perhaps, the enduring topic: faith. Or as Jonathan Romney quipped in a pre-screening introduction: "this year was a good festival for nuns." Of course, he was referring to both Bruno Dumont and Eugène Green’s Hadewijch, and The Portuguese Nun, respectively—though Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes also fits this broad description.

Green’s enjoyable latest “transubstantiates” Lisbon into a site of spiritual reckoning, steered by its actress-avatar Julie's (Leonor Baldaque) quest for renewed beliefs, longer lasting than the one-night “passions” haunting her romantic past. Those unfamiliar with Green’s signature into-camera method might find it jarring, initially, but its ever-present humour should charm even the dourest punter (check Green’s moves in its disco scene).

Bruno Dumont’s Hadewijch, however, countered any further romanticised indulgences, interrogating faith as faith itself, and with it the generic fanaticism of our contemporary world. Dumont’s universe is familiarly cold; menace is never far from any placid surface, body, or inhabited silence. And non-actor Julie Sokolowski’s portrayal of Céline Hadewijch—a devilish persona at once vulnerable, loyal, and perverse—is undeniably electric. The film's main passage following her life after convent expulsion—on account of overzealous mortification, and abstinence—to her short-lived spiritual alliance with Islamist militants is as enthralling as it is unlikely. Might this be Dumont’s masterpiece? It really can’t be far off…

And how might Manoel de Oliveira’s Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, and Hong Sang-Soo’s Like You Know It All be paired? Well, both are impeccable tales of modern lives gambled away by the male libido—told through differing accents. Eccentricities is the more truncated, at a compact 63 minutes (“including credits!” as Dave McDougall keenly pointed out to me). But it never hurries, progressing in flashback-heavy lamentations as honed as the Pessoa stanzas its cast recites. And patience was what Macário (Ricardo Trêpa), its clerk-turned-labourer protagonist, exercised in order to wed his beloved Luísa (Catarina Wallenstein) against his uncle’s Superego-like injunctions. With the tale largely being the wizened Macário’s confession to a train bound stranger, it enters after-viewing memory with a cautionary aura—like a sagacious, “trust me” gift from officially the world’s eldest active filmmaker. Hong’s turn (his excellent short for the Visitors portmanteaux was also included this year) at framing “desiring man,” contrastively inverts Oliviera-esque single-mindedness, replacing it with the boozy urban meanderings Hong fans have grown to cherish. The professional “alibi” this time is festival-judging duty for its frustrated film director (Kim Tae-Woo). Which, as expected, provides ample human traffic for social (mis)adventure—colliding with a careerist actress, starry-eyed student, old pal with angry rock-throwing tendencies, and most importantly, a sadistic past-lover who delights in his submissiveness. Although both films chart inter-personal murkiness differently, their conclusion is resoundingly similar: even if erring is intrinsically human, we still never quite forgive ourselves.

The festival wasn’t without disappointments, however, including many "big names" that I promise not to mention. But, for me, the South East Asian art-house contingent, which promised in the billing to have reached its breakout year, was most guilty. Edwin’s The Blind Pig Who Wants To Fly and Joko Anwar’s Forbidden Door represented new Indonesian cinema’s latest bid to win international support. Both employ extremely confrontational imagery, running between them a gamut of unpleasantness, including "slasher" styled eye gouging, and what Matthew Flanagan appropriately dubbed "arthouse rape." Yet, these extremisms felt suspiciously like distractions from a lack of ideas, which was unfortunate as both approached—however obliquely—themes relating to postcolonial issues. Similarly, this criticism extends to Chris Chong’s (Chong Chan-Fui) Karaoke, and Bui Thac Chuyen’s Afrift. Both of which suffered from unjustifiable inertness, and strayed from too many opportunities to make any memorable impression—this time…

Okay, one high-profiled misfire I will break my promise to mention is Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers. Much has already been said about its carefully designed found artefact aesthetic, furthermore, its raised middle finger posturing. Undoubtedly, Korine’s loyal following will defend it to the last. But, for me, it played too much like a vanity exercise, overly content in its own concept. But exactly what kind of a politics—beyond a hip nihilism—does dish-wash soaked pancake scoffing propound? And in anycase, wasn’t this ground already covered, more brutally and elegantly in Herzog’s Even Dwarves Started Small?

If we must speak of politically inclined films, then we shouldn’t need to look any further than, arguably, the archive program’s centrepiece, Far From Vietnam (1967), an astonishingly well-restored treasure from this section, alongside of two others I saw: Margot Bennacerraf’s Araya (1959), and George Schnéevoigt’s Laila (1929). High praise is in order for the Archives Françaises du Film (was this really a 16mm blow-up?). Making no apologies for its anti-war didacticisms, the film doubly confirms the polemical power of Sixties agit prop, and, lamentably the fact that many more contemporary efforts have yet to match theirs.

Above: Frampton's Critical Mass.

A confession: to my shame, I was unable to schedule in several key films, such as Frederick Wiseman’s anticipated documentary La danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, Michael Haneke's White Ribbon, or Mia Hansen-Løve’s The Father of My Children. My flimsy excuse: that I opted for more debuts, and unknown quantities. Fortunately, however, I was rewarded with the opportunity to confirm two genuine contenders.

The first hails from the currently touted Swedish New Wave, Jesper Ganslandt’s The Ape. His cohort, emerging from shadows cast by Lukas Moodysson and Roy Andersson, include: Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), Ruben Östlund (Involuntary), and Henrik Hellström and Fredrik Wenzel (Burrowing, produced by Ganslandt). The Ape is a highly immersive thriller, and flawlessly executes the Dardennes brothers’ styled hand-held realism to gripping effect. Its dark subject matter is handled with surprising restraint, particularly as The Ape is not only the product of a debut director, but also a self-taught one. Including plot details here will needlessly spoil the experience. But I shall mention that its unrepeatable train-track scene proves that its lead, Olle Sarri, offers this year’s most committed if not fearless performance.

The second—though not a debut—was Pema Tsedan’s stunning The Search. That a Chinese “indie” this year might still be considered something new is startling, given recent signs of creative deceleration. With this I’m referring to a formulaic whiff creeping into (post-)sixth generation works; an inflation of underclass and anti-state miserablism threatening to be more de rigeur than meaningful. Illustrating this worry is Pan Jianlin’s ultra-bleak Feast of Villains—incidentally, the only other China indie inclusion (ignoring the British-made She, a Chinese). Why? Because it’s utterly indiscernible from the low-budget victim narratives it attempts—as its press statement claims—to pastiche. But I digress…What makes The Search new? Most prominently it’s cultural identity: all production credentials including location, crew, cast, and spoken language are ardently Tibetan—precedented only by Pema’s own debut The Silent Holy Stones. And it succeeds in dispelling largely foreign “mythologized” misconceptions of Tibet, as was Pema’s intention. But identification aside, it’s self-evidently impressive, particularly in its formalist command. Reminiscent of Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, its panoramic visuals make gritty rather than sentimental use of incalculable landscapes. And its largely unobtrusive editing is meticulous; cuts disturbing long static takes with details, POVs and movement connect with purposiveness. It would be tragic if it doesn’t gain further exposure.

Deserving a category of its own, however, was my last screening of the festival—one scarcely seen in its intended format, and was proceeded with considerable anticipation. The masterwork(s) in question was, of course, Hollis Frampton: Hapax Legomena (1971-2). And triumphant it was. Any filmmaker describing his or her own work on paper as: “an oblique autobiography, seen in stereoscopic focus with the phylogeny of film art as I have had to recapitulate it,” will run the risk of sounding indulgent, or worse, deluded. But Frampton’s “detachable” seven-part opus is never short of invention, provocation, or wit in its structuralist experimentation with narration and phenomenology. Having only previously seen Nostalgia—in which Frampton incinerates a series of photographs signifying his past, and records an unrivalled deadpan voiceover—it was magnificent to experience how it constructs, with its other six parts, a grand allusive arc. Immersing oneself in its textured sequences and ellipses—including its ten-minute intermission—reveals more about an artist’s life than, say, anything Tracy Emin achieved in her insistent “soul baring” installations. My individual favourites were Critical Mass—the ultimate treatise on lovers’ tiffs—and Special Effects—a wry, self-deprecating comment on audiences’ ongoing seduction by cheap spectacles.

On that note, the festival came to a close (and tidily ushers-in the forthcoming Harun Farocki retrospectives). However disappointing it was for several major programming omissions this year—to name but two, where was Tsai Ming-Liang’s Face, or Raya Martin’s Independencia?—it was still great to see the aforementioned celluloid projected, especially in this time of evermore digitalised cinephillia.

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Excellent. As much as I’d love to take credit for coining the label “arthouse rape” (or not!), I recycled it from something Peter Bradshaw said in the Guardian once (I think). Last year’s main offender was Delta, this year’s: Kinatay. Who knows what that particular scene in Blind Pig… is all about, but it’s certainly objectionable enough. Didn’t realise Forbidden Door was one too, so I’m very glad I skipped it… And, yeah, the Frampton towered over everything else!
Re: Blind Pig, I think that scene was some sort of “naturalization” allegory, green card buggery – seeing as he (as an immigrant Chinese) was submitting himself to the Indonesian fella’s etc… well you saw it… It’s a bit disconcerting that gruesome rapes are growing into something routine, surely there must be other ways to allegorise transgression? But yeah, hallellujah for Frampton!

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