I saw in the news the other day that China is producing the second most scientific research the world right now. As a source of national pride and a new cadre and class of workers, I wonder why these scientists aren't the subject of more films, if at least in the crypto-thriller model of Rivette's Secret défense. I don't much travel the festival circuit, but I assume the genre of feckless, barely employed, malaise-ing youth such as those featured in Heng Yang's second feature Sun Spots are a convention well past its expiration date, and perhaps relevancy. Yet few films so precisely and deliberately, almost stubbornly and most certainly stunningly frame their youthful clichés in as stoic and minimal a grandeur as Yang's epic digital theater. Actors and objects are mostly stuck in Sun Spots' foreground, with the world, flat and looming, nearly overpowering the three-dimensional aspect, minute in comparison, of the motorcycles, alcohol bottles and listless limbs that populate the video’s stage.
Yet with such a look, the film seems to have little to say; Sun Spots' youths are mopey and detached from the landscapes that imposingly pin them physically to the ground in front of us, but we get little sense of, say, the society of the kids, as Hou develops in the petty downtime of Goodbye South, Goodbye, or the local and historical context of Jia's superficially similarly pictorial Still Life. The minimalism on display seems potentially a sly parody of a stultified setting and one-note everything, as Michael Sicinski has mentioned about the director's previous film, and the nihilist ending if not supports then at least suggests such a reading. Yang's tack is purposefully provincial and mundane—the backdrops are less pedantic-document like Jia and have more an everyday, barrier-like sweep, giving a sense that anyone stuck in the town would inevitably end up emptily pondering the surroundings. The characters’ willingness to contemplate, or perhaps more accurately, the actor’s direction to silently step in front of and look at this small town for extended, single master-shot durations brings a welcome, if vague metaphysics to the video. But that doesn't necessarily excuse the tired small criminality of the lead boy, or the patently superficial incommunicativeness its lovers' spat. The secrets of interiority, growing ever more cryptic as art cinema has moved from Rossellini's drama of the 50s to Antonioni's of the 60s, has hidden any sense of character, of psychology, even of social behavior behind the mask of the insolent, thick-headed ruffian youth, always presumably a portrait of the times. But drained of this texture, this context, who's to care about them, or the awesomeness that surrounds their unliving lives?
If Sun Spots is cutting-edge contemporary Asian art house, pushing the master-shot school of the 80s and 90s across global reaches, getting closer to the likes of de Oliveira and Costa, Park Chan-ok's second feature, Paju, which opened the festival, is caught in a previous era of amorphous interior states, psychological repression, and formal ambiguity, staples of modernist cinema subsumed into serious mainstream drama. The comparison was refreshing; Park's story of nestled flashbacks has a sustained note of expectant, cryptic melancholy that lends her modest melodrama an alluring, strange shadowside. One man has three distinct but traumatically intertwined relationships with women over the years, yet Paju's story is focalized through several of its characters view points, aligning, finally in the movie’s second half, with the youngest girl. She, unlike the other characters in Park's uneasy, switchback melodrama of buried emotional currents, has to grow up as she deals with the continual tragic outcomes of the narrative. Pelted with odd story details—including an early stop at a small town Christian community, and a later focal point around urban development protest activism—deploying horrifying events with a shrugging nonchalance that tries to repress its shudder at narrative contrivances, and constantly fading to black to move around in time as the story’s characters register what's going on but fail to reflect on it, Paju's classically and classily low-key modernist storytelling counterbalances perfectly against Sun Spots' stultified content and force-of-impact style.