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Emerging Pleasures at New Directors/New Films 2017

Reveling in the mysteries of emerging directors at the annual festival in New York.
The Summer Is Gone
One of the greater pleasures of New Directors/New Films, the yearly collaboration in New York between the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Museum of Modern Art, is reveling in the mystery of emerging directors. Of course, many and most festivals have offerings from first (and second and third time) directors, but at none is this explicitly the point. When a minimum of information is offered, save for a brief bio, relinquished is the burden of pre-viewing research and any expectations that may arise from it. More prominent titles have been covered by the Notebook already, but here are highlights from around the globe, from directors not-yet-known, though hopefully for not much longer.
The Summer Is Gone echoes the ghosts of Edward Yang by locating drama in a particular moment in history, wedding personal histories to political ones. Set in inner Mongolia, the film throws back to the ever-receding 90s, but feels farther in the past. Xiaolei, age twelve, skips about his small town, idling in the stock pleasures of summer like public pools and movie houses wherein cigarettes aren’t yet banned. The fulcrum shifts to the parents who must contend with his academic prospects as well as their own problems. His father watches Travis Bickle’s mirror-monologue, perhaps preparing to adopt it as his own mantra against the changing times, as privatization soon leaves him out of a job at the state-run movie studio. Eventually, he packs up his pride and suitcase to work as a set runner on a faraway film set. The film and culminates in a vague closing dedication—"to the generation that birthed ours"—alluding not only to familial responsibilities and efforts, but specifically the hard-won labor befallen on Xiaolei’s father and the older generations to make way for a more democratic China. Sans historical context, catch the ominous whiff of an end of an era purveyed through exquisite black and white photography, crisp and patient as if attuned to the gossamer-thin tides of change.
Happy Times Will Come Soon
Sometimes the political is gussied up in a genre, as in Wùlu a gangster picture that swirls in the circumstances of Mali’s civil war, speculating on the country before soldiers overtook the government in 2012. When would-be van driver Ladji (Ibrahim Koma) is spurned for a promotion he says nothing, but his eyes scream frustration.  He’s soon at the gated house of a drug lord, swapping Bambara for French to call in an old favor. Easy as pie, the path to crime. Ladji begins trafficking cocaine across the country just like that, and spills the beans to his sister just as blatantly. Fewer debuts have been as complete or compelling as Franco-Malian director Daouda Coulibaly’s. It's a testament to his writing and directing that the stakes and betrayals register and resonate in an economical 95 minutes. Like all of his cinematic predecessors, Ladji works for a better life for himself and his sister—their relationship itself a rewriting of the one in Scarface.  While his sister’s avarice groans for more things, bigger houses, he exhibits no compulsions, material, pharmaceutical, or otherwise. There is a girl, a posh American-educated daughter of a general, but Ladji exercises restraint and carries something like wisdom, setting him apart from most gangsters.
Jang Woo-jin's Autumn, Autumn echoes the films of fellow South Korean director Hong Sang-soo with its unexpectedly bifurcated structure, drunken and wistful ramblings and long takes, though nary a close-up. The characters here are forgetful of names, but what they want to forget are the places, here the capital of the Gangwon province, Chuncheon. Jang shows twin portraits of the resort town, a popular vacation spot though you wouldn’t know it from this film that focuses on the quotidian. The Korean title is the city times two (Chuncheon, Chuncheon), an indication of the aforementioned narrative plotting and resembles a lament. It is a sorrowful double-sided postcard in which a young man without a job longs for a way out, and a couple reminisces about past visits there. Both stories are flagrantly unfinished, and the cliffhanger, initially puzzling, takes on a more disconcerting tone after the film's end. At least for this viewer, there’s something darkly lonesome about Autumn, Autumn. During an extended shot of the man and woman sharing a meal, the sunlight warms the dim and blue, only to retreat behind the clouds again.
As a title, Happy Times Will Come Soon turns a stock phrase on its head. Read closely, and you might interpret it as a spin on “happily ever after.” One phrase anticipates the other. Whether its ending is a felicitous one or not is up to the viewer, but Alessandro Comodin’s fantastic and phantasmal film is indeed an inverted fairytale, taking place in the deep dark woods at the Italian-French border. One must tiptoe around this plot to avoid even the most mild spoilers so here instead are a few tidbits: a pair of timeless fugitives in workman’s outfits (unplaceably neither hipster nor farmer) scuttle up a steep hill just out of tandem and with an animal-like grace; documentary-like footage of townspeople recounting local rumors and legends; a sped-up scene of a wan young woman and her father driving down the road; an ethereal snow-white doe. Comodin’s film burns itself to your brain, just as a pair of sapphire-glazed eyes blaze deeply against the viridian dark. Spectral and enchanting, its three sections inspect human desire, communion with nature, and more, slyly building greater significance and perplexity as the film progresses. When pieced together, it even creates a sort of narrative ouroboros. Unclassifiably brilliant.
The Challenge
Which is more intriguing: the falcon or the falconer? The latter are Qatari sheiks, men of few words and preternatural calm. There are no interviews, just striking images in The Challenge, a documentary bills itself as an anthropology of the desert. Indeed, video artist Yuri Ancarani presents these wealthy men, bidding for birds, or Sunday-driving with a cheetah, as part of a unique desert ecosystem, where a flock of motorcyclists and the herd of SUVs that slip across the sand dunes creating their own circles of movement are among its other inhabitants. A mystifying series of coy and curious impressions, The Challenge is also undeniably playful in its observation of collective and unseen preening. There’s an inherent absurdity in something like a lone TV screen in the middle of a sandy wasteland, and a more constructed kind, when a long take of a room filled with hundreds of swooping birds is accompanied by a bellicose pan flute-enhanced EDM music reaches the grandeur—and  terror—of a classic movie epic.
A road movie of sorts: in Paris, Pierre (Pascal Cervo) abruptly leaves Paul (Arthur Igual) like a thief in the night, unhurriedly traversing the suburbs and exurbs of France in his button-white Alfa Romeo. 4 Days in France unfolds as a series of interactions with people on the road, most of whom he picks up off the street, sometimes romantic, sometimes not, or via Grindr. Recent technology is an often clunky narrative device, but director Jerome Reybaud uses it to humorous and non-distracting effect. The camera is calm and meditative, even as the freshly-spurned Paul sleuths around in agitated pursuit. Another film on the subject of lover’s leave-taking, Sophie Fillieres' If You Don’t, I Will, dedicated part of its runtime to its lovers pre-departure. Not the case here. Pierre's casual fleeing is even less pre-meditated. His overnight bag contains a cashmere sweater and a manuscript in three different forms, its ownership as unknown as Pierre’s general impetus for getaway. Grindr hookups may be the offered pretext, but there is no context and don’t bother looking for it. A helpful stranger inquires as much about the innocuous particulars of Pierre and Paul's relationship, but is more or less ignored. Reybaud hides the details from our purview, growing the film's enigma into something almost mystical, underscoring it with baroque chamber pieces and recitations of Rimbaud and Rousseau. The actors’ elocutions are lovely and absurd, the sights idyllic, the film's mood unruffled. Reybaud's expertly ordered world is predicated on a genteel kindness, of strangers and Pierre alike, and starts to crack ever so slightly the further north he travels and the colder it gets.
4 Days in Paris
Spoken entirely in Yiddish, Menashe is a sort of Kramer vs. Kramer of the Hasidic community in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Played by Menashe Lustig, the titular character proves immediately lovable, if not a mensch. Hapless, struggling, but good-intentioned, he goes out of his way to help others and spend time with his adorable son, currently in the care of his strict and successful brother-in-law. Menashe is a widower, and the ultra-Orthodox community dictates a child to be raised in a household by both man and woman, but he remains ambivalent about re-yoking. Debut director Joshua Z. Weinstein offers much access to and respect for an under-depicted community, but turns out what amounts to, measure for measure, an indie drama outfitted in kippah and tallit.
A handful of films in this year's festival have been prefaced by or closed with a quote. Some have been more helpful than others, and Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's Sexy Durga is one such movie whose introductory remarks fall short of supplying helpful context.  The night is full of jolts and terrors for passengers and drivers alike in this film set in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Kabeer, a Keralite man, and Durga (Rajshri Deshpande), a northern Indian woman, are subject to inquisitions by the two sketchy dudes with whom they’ve just hitched a van ride in frantic effort to reach the train station. The night’s events unfold entirely in the dark, illuminated intermittently by the ultra-brights of oncoming cars or the rare streetlamp, and are shot from the space above the couple's shoulders, seating viewers square in the action. The threat of rape looms the largest amid the murky trepidation, dangled as prominently as the disembodied doll's head on the car’s rearview mirror. That thin line between mischievous and malicious that a woman might assess in such a situation is erased in Sexy Durga because Sasidharan, though a skilled craftsman, exploits these unknown variables for the sake of mood and tension. He adds heavy metal music and genre accoutrements that dilute his intended statement on the treatment of women by forcing the audience (and Durga) to anticipate horror-movie type scares. The ride from hell is intercut with scenes of young men hooked by the skin of their back and dangled from above in part of ritual celebration ironically is indebted to Kali, the alter ego of the goddess Durga. This bit of information seems key to correctly viewing Sasidharan’s film as one concerning hypocritical attitudes towards women, but without it, the ceremony scenes only add, however appropriately, to the frenzied mood of dangerous uncertainty.
Happiness Academy
Onward, to films directed by women and about them. Pendular is at least partially a study of what happens when women invade men's spaces. Eschewing Virginia Woolf’s solid advice, Alice moves into her sculptor boyfriend’s loft/studio, bisected with orange tape. On page they’re equals, but the film offers no name for the man, skewering all those old movies about male artists and their muses, their nameless women. Soon he’s requesting more space for his leaden objects, while she dances. Visual motifs and avant-garde fixtures pretend to obscure a digestible storyline concerning two artists in relation to their craft, success, and each other. Shifting from the artistic life to the professional, Boundaries paves a succinct tale of three women on different sides of political negotiations between the Canadian government and the fictional country of Besco. They are an American intermediary (Emily Camp), Besco’s president (Macha Grenon), and a junior Canadian government aide (Nathalie Doummar). Though one woman is a mediator explicitly, they all undeniably and unintendedly mediators in their own lives, juggling the personal and professional, the public and private. Writer-director Chloé Robichaud films in purposefully icy grays, but the film falls victim to its own drabness. Her characters are barely more than archetypes. There’s also some on-the-nose cross-cutting with scenes of ice hockey and upbeat musical cues to punch up tedious political talk, though to little avail.
Laughter, meditation, and orgasm. One seeker of such enlightenment, Lily (Laure Calamy), has bit of trouble surrendering herself to the bacchanalia, gravitating instead toward a famous singer (real life musician Arnaud Fleurent-Didier). His attendance does not go unseen, catching the eye of confident and busty Dominique, the Veronica to Lilly's Betty. This is the fabricated portion of Kaori Kinoshita and Alain Della Negra's fact-fiction hybrid Happiness University, which takes place at an official Raelian retreat. For the uninitiated: Raelism is a religion/religious movement based on extraterrestrial wisdom. The devotees perhaps are not without a sense of humor. At one of the many parties, people dance in masks of aliens as we know them: green faces with blackened eyes, the crude leftovers of crude Gen X paraphernalia. What is assumed to be the real footage from a retreat resembles an adult version of summer camp where life-path seminars and sexually-tinged yoga classes abound. A gender-swap soiree, where men dress up as women and women as men, and its morning-after reflection by its participants touches briefly on something like understanding or the beginning of empathy, but the film satisfies itself with the entry-level fascination of the far-out religion, sadly never delving into greater detail. Fake profundity is the arguably point and from this too-light satire emerges something sincere: the fictitious love triangle bit proves sneakily affecting, much more so than what look to be real-life pronouncements/re-declarations of love between Raelian couples, perhaps prompted (or inspired) by a workshop—proving if nothing else the power of narrative. Happiness University catches you off guard, proving that small joys are to be found in the strangest of places—or films.

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