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Rotterdam 2010: No Shot Repeated

So much collapse had filled the day—the flattened space and digital collage of Benning’s pixels, especially the exquisite, ink-drawing look of Ruhr’s 3rd shot of latticed leaves and branches; Brooks’s unendingly re-forming shapes and Ghost Alebgra’s drowsy mash-up of a Nature and History Channel nocturnal hybrid—that discovering the simplicity and factuality of Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide II was palatably exciting, even if the film’s form and subject—the real time creation, cooking, and eating of 73 dumplings—sounds fit for pure formal exactitude.  A further description may exacerbate that possibility: in 130 minutes Liu cuts only 8 times, with each cut pivoting 45 degrees around the table (side, corner, side, corner) where the cooking takes place, altering the height or cant but otherwise paying strict adherence to the intimate geometric circle the camera draws.  But Oxhide II rides high on process, on the pleasure one takes in seeing things assembled, made, slowly come to together; parts fitted, vague shapes formed, function revealed.  A direct descendent may in fact be the no less communal nor less pleasurable seminal pseudo-real time doc by Eustache and Barjol on the slaughtering of a pig, Le couchon.

Using video and long lenses, the material subject of Oxhide II is less emphasized than the flat gestalt of the experience of cooking with Liu’s family, as indeed it is her mother, father, and the filmmaker herself who star as the dumpling makers and eaters.  The overall effect of the ingredients, their mixing, and the dinner table talk (which is more instructive than conversational) express character not through plot or dramatic dialog—the dramatic undercurrent of the video is maintained by rare dolops of discussion about the family's failing business—but through the sum total of gestures over time.  We get acquainted with the barely dramatized family almost entirely through watching how each family member cooks (or in Liu’s inexperienced case, tries to).  Faces are rare in the film, and so we take what we can get, which is a surprising amount, from the simple actions of kneading the dough, the filling of dumplings.  Remarkably, the digital look of Oxhide II removes the concreteness of the food, the table, the bodies—while you may be hungry upon leaving the theater (I sure was), it certainly isn’t the kind of movie where you can magically smell what’s on screen.  Video simply lacks the material there-ness of film, and Liu’s rigorous one-woman tour-de-force (acting, editing, shooting, directing, writing) compares better to Picasso’s flat, muddier looking cubism than to Ozu’s superficially similar cubic construction of celluloid 3-D space.  Despite being so strictly formalized, Oxhide II, like each shot of Ruhr, congeals forcefully into a poignant gestalt: a direct, honest, miniature epic on the totality of a meal with the Lius.

The first film I was able to catch in the much-anticipated and much needed retrospective on unheralded Japanese New Waver Yoshida Kiju (also known as Yoshida Yoshishige) was not his best known one, Eros Plus Massacre, and made only a scant six years before that epic of social sickness and self-destruction on par with Rivette’s contemporaneous L’amour fou, it was shocking to find the director in studio-mode with 1963’s The 18 Who Stirred Up a Storm.  I expected a continued escalation of filmmaking risks beginning with Yoshida's debut and culminating in Eros, but The 18, the story of a frustrated maladjust having to look after 18 youthful new dockside workers assigned to the dormitory he is in charge of, is very much kept in check.  The plot is dangerously close to a Robin Williams vehicle Jack Black would have remade in the 2000s, but starting from someone else’s story Yoshida, whose stark photography never returns to the same shot twice, sets and entirely films his 18 at a seaside boatbuilding factory, and from the very start precisely and with little fuss pins his broadly defined characters into a network of the town’s relations.

As such, the film lacks the energy of the pointed spear Yoshida often fashions as a filmmaker, here crafting The 18 as a blunt, rounded object.  Lacking the acerbic aggression a film so full of frustrated young miscreants, all bordering on existential crises, would normally entail, 18 Roughs’ pleasures are instead found in how Yoshida so naturally and without emphasis show how our worker renegade has befriended his boss’s family, shows the labor hierarchy of contract and brought-in dock workers, what there is to do in town on a Saturday night, and what the kids do during rainy days off.  Lackadaisical or relaxed might be a good description, but those words fail to catch the film’s rigor and supreme moderation within its surprisingly weak-blooded attitude, exhibiting a leveling degree of control perhaps closer to Kobayashi’s methodical approach than Yoshida’s cut-to-the-quick style that placed him closer to Oshima than Oshima was to any other of his New Wave peers.  But the action isn’t that interesting, and the characters, even our lead, are left flat; nevertheless The 18 triumphs above all for its strenuous insistence on location, and these locations’ unexpected, grim reveals of abstract doubt and unhappiness that are missing from the characters—the boat search, the baseball park, the cliff-side yard, the hillbound wedding.  One can name nearly every single location used in this town-roving movie, a rare thing for a picture, and rarer still for a small town one bound to drifting boat workers.

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