TIFF 2012. Wavelengths (P)review: Part Two – The Features

As I mentioned in the preface to the first part of my Wavelengths preview (the one focusing on the short films), there are significant changes afoot in 2012. Until last year, the festival had a section known as Visions, which was the primary home for formally challenging cinema that nevertheless conformed to the basic tenets of arthouse  and/or “festival” cinema (actors, scripting, 70+minute running time, and, once upon a time, 35mm presentation). This year, Wavelengths is both its former self, and it also contains the sort of work that Visions most likely would have housed. While in some respects this can seem to result in a kind of split personality for the section, it also means that Wavelengths, which has often been described as a sort of “festival within the festival,” has moved front and center. Films that would’ve occupied single slots in the older avant-Wavelengths model, like the Heinz Emigoltz and Nicolas Rey features, now receive more extensive screen time, dedicated press screenings, and are effectively rendered equal to films by Apichatpong and Reygadas.

This strikes me as a very positive step—an idea that may have began as a new branding mandate or streamlining measure that, in practice, has the potential to redefine some of our older, comfortable boundaries. What’s more, under the direction of Andréa Picard, the section has much more of a “voice,” a distinctive point of view, than Visions ever did. This is how every part of every film festival should ideally be run. I recall several years back when TIFF introduced the Vanguard section, Mike D’Angelo and I puzzling over the program(me) book(e), trying to suss out the difference between Vanguard and Visions. In time it became clear: Vanguard is, by and large, the outré-content section, a space for Colin Geddes, mostly, to place edgy films that probably won’t play well to the Midnight crowd. Visions, ultimately, became the spot for other programmers to slot films from their own curatorial bailiwick (Asian, Latin American, etc.) that were deemed too inaccessible for native-speaker communities and, in particular, buyers. It was something that needed a rethink, and while I don’t think each and every one of this year’s Wavelengths feature selections is an unqualified success, the section reflects the acumen and, yes, vision of one of North America’s best programmers.

The following works were unavailable for preview: THE CAPSULE (Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece); THE FIFTH SEASON (Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth, Belgium / The Netherlands / France); VIOLA (Matías Piñeiro, Argentina).


BESTIAIRE (Denis Côté, Canada)

“A tree,” the theatre artist Robert Wilson proposed, “is best measured when it is down.” In a way, this is the ironic proposition that radical-weirdo Canadian filmmaker Denis Côté is out to debunk with his latest project, Bestiaire. It’s a film about animals, but to simply say this is to wander out into a shitfield of slippage. How can we ever look at or talk about animals without really making statements about ourselves, our own desires? (We should remember some basic Lacan here. Animals can loom at you, but they cannot return the Gaze.) How can we stop ourselves from anthropomorphizing, or longing for some prelapsarian “wildness” in ourselves that was never there, or simply seeing the animal other as a means to our own end? Bestiaire begins with a life drawing class, in which students are working from taxidermy. Then, Côté takes us in and around Quebec Zoo, where he asks us to just spend some long-take time in their company. There is a sadness and dignity to these scenes that is legible but almost certainly not there. I am describing human feelings. But compared to the work of Bert Haanstra (“maybe we’re the ‘animals’!”) or Nicolas Philibert (“there is so much there we can never know”), Côté uses his film to place all of us at a respectful distance, and keep us there. By the final third, when we watch a taxidermist ply his trade, one must pause to wonder. We can in fact get closer to dead animals and get to know them much better than we can those who are alive. But these “downed” creatures are only yielding knowledge of what they used to be.

 BIG IN VIETNAM (Mati Diop, France)

Diop first came to the attention of most of us with her starring role in Claire Denis’s plangent tone poem to loss and change, 35 Shots of Rum. In the years since, she has been making quite an impression as a director in her own right, perhaps most notably with 2009’s Atlantiques. If that earlier film bore traces of Diop’s time with Denis, her latest, Big in Vietnam, seems to bear traces of a number of key late-modernist cinematic artists. The film gives the overall impression of Diop both finding her own voice amidst the contemporary canon of “festival film” greats, as well as adapting certain dominant styles to her own late-post-colonial needs. Vietnam starts out in a reflexive mode, both observing and directly depicting the fruits of an Asian, forest-bound remake of Dangerous Liaisons. The performers are arranged in a tableau on a hillside (echoes of Straub / Huillet or even Rodrigues’ To Die Like a Man) while different shots let us view the outer schema of the shot set-up and production apparatus (cf. Apichatpong’s Worldly Desires or Anthem). As one actor moves through a set of mirrored panels (cf. Tsai Ming-liang’s Face) and disappears—his role in the film appears to have precipitated an identity crisis—the director within Diop’s film (Henriette Nhung) leaves the set and insinuates herself among the Vietnamese locals, drinking and performing karaoke. Much like recent Apichatpong, Big in Vietnam uses the precepts of reflexivity as a way to combine fictional / forma material with semi-documentary, generating multiple layers of representational truth. What it means, however, is less than certain. By leaving the multicultural crew and production and “going home,” does Henriette find authenticity? Or, by locating comfort on a particularly rough day, is she merely demonstrating a basic human desire?

 BIRDS (Gabriel Abrantes, Portugal / Haiti)

This is the second film I’ve seen by Abrantes (following his odd but intriguing featurette from last year, Palaces of Pity), and thus I find myself feeling about him the way I had felt about Nicolas Peréda about this time last year. There seems to be a relatively rapid anointing going on, at least in my critical circles, and I find myself wanting to say hey there hold on wait a minute. Birds is one of a number of films in this years festival (actually in Wavelengths, come to think of it) hailing from sudden hot-spot Portugal, and a number of them do seem to pertain to center / periphery models of European and post-European identity. To Abrantes’ credit, his film has nothing to do with some sort of para-nostalgic faux-return to a former Portuguese colony; his films overall are more of a piece with those of, say, Fern Silva or Jonathan Schwartz – exploratory travelers keen on engaging with and learning from different global cultures, with no colonizing impulse. However, there’s a frustrating undercurrent to Birds that plagues a lot of recent, festival-funded “globalist” art. Abrantes’ premise is to restage Aristophanes’ Birds (in the original ancient Greek) in Haiti, with Haitian performers, in order to arrive at a somewhat new, culturally hybrid project. Why Aristophanes? Birds (whose title is actually the original Greek) never makes that clear, and so the only possible answer is, “Why not Aristophanes?” As though posing the question itself represents some sort of Western territorial pissing on a text which does, of course, belong to everyone in equal measure. Abrantes stages such “unexpected” globalis moments in microcosm when a member of his female chorus remarks that the lead performer is “hotter than Robert Pattinson,” and the play will be “better than Twilight.” Birds plays these remarks for laughs, while at the same time milking the gotcha – “Why wouldn’t Haitian girls be as into Twilight as every other young girl on the planet?” And so, Abrantes is working a kind of hybridity-smarm, while at the same time using these very culture “clashes” (one thing plus another) in lieu of top-down rigorous thinking. I object.

 DIFFERENTLY, MOLUSSIA (Nicolas Rey, France)

Even avant-friendly audiences on these shores don’t get to see nearly enough of the work of French film artist Nicolas Rey, partly because his major works, such as Soviets Plus Electricity and Schuss!, are feature-length. This makes them expensive for cash-strapped North American programmers to rent and more difficult to schedule than the customary group show. But I’m hopeful that differently, Molussia will raise his profile mightily around these parts; it’s one of the year’s finest films, as well as a career-best for Rey. Building on both the essayistic orientation and the rich, hand-processed 16mm textures of Schuss!, differently, Molussia takes as its starting point Günther Anders’ 1936 novel The Molussian Catacomb. The novel, as yet unavailable in either French or English, intrigued Rey (who to my knowledge does not speak German), and so part of the film’s raison d’être was to have the chance to learn more about it. Anders’ book is an allegorical tale of a fascist dystopia, lorded over by a Hitleresque leader called Burru. The events of Molussia are reported through the Socratic dialogues of elder Olo and his young student Yegussa. Using extended excerpts of Anders’ text, Rey has created a semi-fictional, experimental landscape film in nine reels. We see factories, highways, fallow fields, and many interstitial spaces of contemporary Germany. What’s more, Rey’s hand-processed footage – grainy, scarred, with eerily desaturated color—serves to collapse Anders’ hypothetical (past) future with our own time. Rey shows that Anders (whose name was a pseudonym, the German word for “differently”) was presenting an allegory about the compression of time and history, that the fascism he describes cancels teleology in favor of a permanent present, a great “I Am.” To drive this point home on the most fundamental level, differently, Molussia is a fully modular film. Its nine reels are to be shown in a randomly generated order, different with each screening. In this way, their sequence (and sequential presentation) is a virtual accident; they are all hovering in the Now.

 FAR FROM AFGHANISTAN (John Gianvito, Jon Jost, Soon-Mi Yoo, Minda Martin, Travis Wilkerson, U.S.)

While so much of the world (including much of Canada) has been watching, rapt, as Pres. Obama accepts his second coronation in Charlotte, TIFF has presented the world premiere of this five-part omnibus (with interstitial documentary from the ground) addressing the seemingly open-ended, increasingly inexplicable multinational misadventure known as Operation Enduring Freedom. (FFA was directly inspired by the 1967 French collective project Far From Vietnam, also screening in the festival.) This is an admirable effort through and through, one with which I am in total sympathy and with which I feel a high degree of solidarity. (In conception, I would have liked to have seen non-American filmmakers take part, particularly given Canada’s involvement in the Afghan War. But Gianvito and Co. cannot be faulted for who would not or could not give of their time.) Nevertheless, I feel I’d be remiss if I give FFA a positive review based solely on its righteous intent. As is often the case with multi-artist projects, there is wide variability is quality. Martin’s contribution, “The Long Distance Operator,” is the most straightforward of the five, and seems to have the least purpose, since by creating performances and using them for dramatic ambiance, she pulls focus from the issues at hand. Yoo’s film, “Afghanistan: The Next Generation,” is a found-footage work derived from State Department films dating from the Soviet invasion. It has an incantatory power but feels under-manipulated, as though she were worried about getting too involved with the source material and its latent potential. As a result, the segment feels more like a rough draft than a complete work. Jost’s “Empire’s Cross,” a video-montage of symmetrically mirrored smart-bomb footage, distributed across the screen with Eisenhower’s “Cross of Iron” speech playing in the center, is both uninformative and aesthetically retrograde, neither reframing the military imagery into “something else,” nor teaching us anything about it through dialectical arrangement.

By far the most sophisticated contributions to FFA were the first and the last, from John Gianvito and Travis Wilkerson, respectively. However, while I would contend that Gianvito’s “My Heart Swims in Blood” is masterfully assembled, its mode of address is fundamentally self-defeating. It features André Gregory as a concerned, upper-middle-class suburban white man, whose American Slumber is troubled by what is happening over there – “ici et ailleurs,” as it were. However, as voiceovers recite facts about the war and its obscene death toll (asking, “where’s the outrage?”), Gianvito gives us gorgeous images of everything the filmmaker clearly finds frivolous and revolting about life in the U.S.: dog shows, mani-pedis, mall escalators . . . you get the idea. There is an overwhelming sense that all of these fat-and-happy citizens are, per Gianvito, part of the problem, because they are not “part of the solution,” i.e., protesting, or making protest films. However, is this actually where Gianvito and his film want to locate power? Aside from raising questions of gender that the film does not address, “My Heart” undermines both its beauty and its fundamental acuity with what amount to broad swipes at rather easy targets. By contrast, Wilkerson’s “Fragments of Dissolution” is a kind of mini-masterpiece of political cinema, because it does what any dialectician should. It takes things that Power refuses to allow us to think “together,” and brings them together so that we can see the underlying connections. In the film, Wilkerson presents four interviewees. Two are widows whose family members (one husband, one son) were Afghan vets who committed suicide. The other two are women who lost family members because Detroit Edison turned off their electricity during the winter. Wilkerson does nothing to draw parallels between these two forms of injustice. Rather, by simply juxtaposing the women’s stories, we are able to see how systematic indifference to human life takes multiple forms, but comes back to the same root causes, and how we are indeed fighting the same war against the poor and disenfranchised at home and abroad – ici et ailleurs. Wilkerson’s film gestures toward a deeper radicalism that I truly wish Far From Afghanistan had embodied throughout.

THE LAST TIME I SAW MACAO (João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata, Portugal / France)

One of the few recent films that I would call truly unclassifiable, The Last Time I Saw Macao is one of two collaborations this year between Rodrigues (O Fantasma; To Die Like a Man) and Guerra, his co-screenwriter on To Die. (The other film, Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day, is not at TIFF, but will screening in October at NYFF’s Views from the Avant-Garde.) Essentially a personal essay film, complicated by a Rivettian conspiracy noir plot and prefaced by a succulent, transgender paean to the great Jane Russell / Sternberg collaborations, Macao adopts the point of view of a Portuguese gentleman (voice of Guerra) who grew up in Macao and has been called back to help his friend, cabaret singer Candy (Cindy Scrash), who has run afoul of a shadowy group of dangerous men. Within this semi-narrative framework, Rodrigues and Guerra provide a kind of walking tour of Macao in static shots, capturing the searing electric neon and historical collision of colonialist Orientalism and hypermodernity. Macao, a Portuguese colony until the Chinese handover of 1999, becomes for the narrator a spatial text, an arena for desire, and a palimpsest of both personal and regional histories. Although a number of works this year (cf. Tabu, Birds, Big In Vietnam) seem to address a kind of double-consciousness with respect to post-colonial existence—knowing that the center must give up its hold on the periphery, but still evincing a longing for a sense of order in the world. To its great credit, The Last Time I Saw Macao is the most rigorous and forward-thinking on this question of any other film this year. Although the Joãos never specify who or what the threatening cabal might be, the film strongly implies that it is the Colonial Unconscious, the repressed returning with a vengeance.

THE LEBANESE ROCKET SOCIETY (Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, France / Lebanon / U.A.E. / Qatar)

Much like Ali Cherri’s short video Pipe Dream, which profiled the second (and final) Arab cosmonaut, The Lebanese Rocket Society, by the duo of Hadjithomas and Joreige (I Want to See) zeroes in on a small but proud moment in Middle Eastern scientific achievement in order to explore its broader resonances. Starting out with anecdotes and vague memories, the filmmakers set out to reconstruct the lost history of the titular society, a Lebanese aerospace group that worked out of Haigazian University, an Armenian college in the 60s. Driven by pure curiosity and a can-do attitude (they made their own rocket fuel in the classroom), the group handmade and launched numerous “Cedar” rockets, until an on-campus accident ended the program. Hadjithomas and Joreige locate the former leader of the group, Prof. Manoug Manougian, in a Tampa university, and discover that he holds the archive for the long-lost society. We also learn that, in the wake of the 1967 War, the Lebanese military got involved with Haigazian’s “pure research,” aiming to weaponize it. The doc is quite adept at fixating on a juncture when history might’ve been different, when progress and modernity could have been logical outcomes of Arab intellectual endeavor. But the film really suffers at the midway point, when it becomes a self-reflexive documentation of Hadjithomas and Joreige’s efforts to install a public memorial sculpture of a rocket. It’s at this point that the makers are obviously padding out a short subject.

LEVIATHAN (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, U.K. / France)

Sweetgrass, the deeply poetic, observational documentary about sheepherding that Castaing-Taylor made two years ago (with Ilsa Barbash), could be likened to the “thick description” advocated by the late anthropologist Clifford Geertz. By contrast, Leviathan is a radical, nonlinear portrait of deep-sea fishing so immersive it can only be called baptismal. It does not describe so much as delve, dodge and parry, plunge into darkness and wait patiently for some spark of revelatory light. Shot with small, lightweight cameras affixed to various parts of the vessel, Leviathan thrives on withheld information, but to even trot out a word like “information” prompts immediate misunderstanding, implicitly filing Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s effort somewhere along the continuum of documentary. In fact, what they accomplish is more akin to four-dimensional painting, the registration of deep black space and its pulsating maw, the white hot moonlight that glints off a night sea and belies all pieties about Romantic beauty, serving to illuminate only the power and horror of the ocean’s vast indifference. The filmmakers also show us labor, grueling and panicked, and slinky chains and soaked rain slickers swipe by the various lenses in defense of the craft. And then, of course, there are the fish – massive nets filled with slimy torpedo-creatures gasping for final breaths, dead eyes bulging from their sockets. As the slicing and dicing begins, the intensive close-ups and kinetic camerawork naturally recalls Brakhage (especially the Pittsburgh trilogy – “documentary” material transformed through staggered, unnatural vision), but as the men lop off heads, or dewing stingrays and toss their wriggling bodies aside in the chum pile, it’s hard not to think of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and its very different harvest. Once seagulls darken the skies around the ship, it’s clear that Leviathan is a portrait of a very routine set of procedures that, when stripped away from their typical explanatory frames (the life cycle, human labor, migratory patterns, environmentalism, maritime law, “endless shrimp”), entail levels of barbarism that we, as a society, find not only ethical but awe-inspiring. Leviathan is a frightening and heroic film.

MEKONG HOTEL (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand . U.K. / France)

Although some may disagree (and in fact, upon the world premiere of Mekong Hotel earlier this year at Cannes, several did), Apichatpong is constitutionally incapable of producing a work that is interesting at the very least. And “interesting” is precisely how I would characterize this new entry from Thailand’s Finest. In its broadest sense, this one-hour featurette is a patient, lolling survey of the goings-on at the titular locale, a riverfront inn situated between Thailand and Laos. For most of the running time, Mekong Hotel consists of two kinds of shots: sunlit, static medium-long shots on the patio, overlooking the Mekong River (themselves an object lesson in compositional precision) and gray, dingy medium shots from inside the rooms, usually with characters on a bed talking. In its deliberate pacing and limited camera movement, Mekong Hotel calls to mind a stripped-down, tropical rendition of Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, where the disconnected activity in and around lodgers and their preoccupations provide all the narrative you get. Nevertheless, Apichatpong offers a bit more than placid formalism. The various figures (especially “Phon,” “Tung,” and “Auntie Jen”) speak about various things, such as the Laotian experience, and shared folklore. This being a Joe film, of course, you should expect the unexpected, and here it comes in the form of the Phop Ghost, an “entrail demon” who eviscerates human beings with her fingers and teeth. This is the primary intervention – within this charmed space, the real and the fictive continue to collapse into one coextensive reality. While there is little doubt that Mekong Hotel will be remembered as a minor contribution to Apichatpong’s overall corpus (not unlike earlier projects such as Haunted Houses, or Ashes from earlier this year), it is good to see him still capable of working within the narrowest of aesthetic constraints and locating the deeply strange within the mundane.

PERRET IN FRANCE AND ALGERIA (Heinz Emigholz, Germany)

Emigholz’s ongoing and seemingly (hopefully) inexhaustible “Photography and Beyond” series is one of the most unique projects currently underway on the contemporary film scene, and while genre convention and historical shorthand have bequeathed us the label “experimental film” to discuss virtually any work that foregrounds formal concerns over narrative organization, Emigholz’s architectural studies are among the few films anywhere that truly deserve that designation. He is experimenting with the parameters between two-, three-, and four-dimensional representation and perception, the possibility and the necessity for using cinema and/or video to assume tasks that were at one time (and by and large still are) the province of still photography, in order to document both the physical facticity and the mobile, haptic experience of architectural dwelling. In viewing his films, I used to wonder, for example, why Emigholz always seemed to adopt a stance that would imply a framed shot of a building—a street view or a distant standing position looking across the vast space, for example, but cant his angles just so. The frames were still, like a “standard” photograph. Why the tilt? Over time I recognized two things. One, the canted angle ever-so-slightly implies a movement around and through the space; it “de-pictorializes” it, but only just. And two, it suggests that Emigholz’s camera has frozen the gestured looking of a live, moving body. That is, the time of the shot exists as though we are just about the enter it, even though the film (which of course could move right in) tells us that we are apart from the spatial environment before us.

Perret in France and Algeria is one of Emigholz’s finest films in the series thus far, in no small part due to his chosen subject. Auguste Perret (1874-1954) designed buildings and constructed them with his brother Gustave, and what we see of his work in the film certainly clarifies his significance. A modernist who favored concrete over steel, Perret made buildings that featured high, vast walls with undulating patterns of semicircles and broken squares puncturing the cement walls, letting the light in. A combination of ornament and function, this tendency toward patterned brick and concrete design bespoke an Islamic influence on his architecture, an original blending of early 20th century modernism’s avoidance of decorative excess and the classical Islamic arts with their evocation of the holy through almost mathematically ordered latticework. Emigholz, for his part, displays the substantial differences Perret employed when building in France versus Algeria—specific choices not only of outward style but also of use-directed form—without comment. What’s more, Perret in France and Algeria bluntly documents the vast differential in condition between Perret’s structures in both nations. This is a political question. (And not only because Algeria doesn’t have the resources France does to safeguard its cultural treasures, but also, of course, because France took the colonial war to Algeria’s doorstep.) Emigholz simply lets the facts speak for themselves, suggesting ever so subtly that we could move through them, exist alongside them, like dwellings.

POST TENEBRAS LUX (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico / France / Germany)

“I think maybe that film was just too macho for me,” a friend remarked after a screening of the latest from the, um, “controversial” auteur behind Jápon, Battle in Heaven and Silent Light. Just like those three previous films, Post Tenebras Lux (“after shadow, light”) is a fairly healthy mix of stunning images, jejune visual ideas, a plotline that teeters on the brink between “elemental” and “half-baked,” and, in terms of absolute gonzo sincerity, a willingness (to me, never less than admirable) to go all in, holding nothing back for such mere-mortal reasons as “good taste” or “not wanting to look ridiculous.” PTL (a fortuitous abbreviation, no?) appears to be Reygadas’ most personal film to date, although it is always difficult to tell through the layers of cryptic images and obfuscation. It is about an upper-class couple, Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) and Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo) and their two kids, both played by the director’s own children (Rut and Eleazar Reygadas). The opening sequence, in which Rut wanders through the cow pasture as dusk approached, naming everything she sees, is lovely and graceful, even though it echoes the “dawn” opening of Silent Light rather explicitly. In allowing the girl to name her world, Reygadas places PTL in line with both Malick and Brakhage, the barely-focused child’s universe willing itself into Being.

But hold onto your hats. After an inexplicable second sequence in which a well-hung animated satyr-demon made of red hot light (I’m not even shitting you) invades the family home in the dark of night, we see a somewhat more conventional family melodrama at the core of this otherwise avant-garde work. Apart from the marital tensions between Juan and Natalia, we are also made acutely aware of his anxieties about performing as paterfamilias. He goes to an AA meeting to confront his porn addiction (seemingly embodied by Red Devil Goat Boy); he is worried that Seven (Willebaldo Torres), his lower-class ranch-hand, isn’t trustworthy and may be too manly to fight off (shades of El Week-end de los Ostermans), and, meanwhile, even his ultra-rich family thinks he’s a frou-frou intellectual. (He does “green architecture.”) So there is indeed a sturdy core of male-macho panic at the heart of PTL, but Reygadas spruces it up (or, depending on your skepticism, Three Card Montes it) with nonlinear reverie and indeterminate events, such as Juan and Natalia’s trip to a French sex club (the “Duchamp” room), or Seven’s stow-stopping self-punishment for his sins against his bourgeois betters. And, throughout PTL, Reygadas employs a bizarre tunnel-vision lens which creates a “visual flange” effect around the perimeter of the frame, sort of like looking through bifocals and seeing peripheral phenomena blurred and doubled. This device, which makes perfect sense in a section such as the introduction with the young daughter (“untutored vision”), does not always seem to have a particular reason for being there. The iris is tighter in some parts, wider in others; I suspected there might be a thematic scheme to this (fear? determination?) but I couldn’t tell. What I do believe is, Post Tenebras Lux is a rather conservative film about the need to defend the family against all potential threats, foreign and domestic. (Even the seemingly random conclusion, with a rugby team, gives us the final line, “We’re going to win, because they’re a bunch of individuals, and we’re a team.”) So I am very sincere on all counts when I declare this film to be Reygadas’s Eyes Wide Shut.

TABU (Miguel Gomes, Portugal / Germany / Brazil / France)

Tabu is a fine film by any measure, but it should be said, Gomes is to be commended for making a significant leap in a new direction following the equally but differently odd Our Beloved Month of August. While that film was sprawling and discursive, Tabu is a tight fiction that explores a set of very specific parameters within a tight but elegant superstructure. The film is divided in unequal halves (the second part, “Paradise,” is longer than the first, “Paradise Lost”), both linked not only by one primary character but by history and fate. “Paradise Lost” is centered on Pilar (Teresa Madruga), a middle-aged woman living in an apartment complex. She tried to be Christian, so she does what she can to help her next-door neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral), who is senile and paranoid. She thinks that Santa (Isabel Cardoso, “Clothilde” from Colossal Youth), the Cape Verdean woman her daughter has hired to look after her, is trying to kill her. Once she becomes gravely ill, Aurora asks Pilar to help her find one person, Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), from her old days. She finds him, but he arrives too late.

At this point, Ventura essentially delivers the “Paradise” section as a monologue while Gomes shows us Aurora’s life in the colonies as a silent film. While all of Tabu is black and white and 4:3 academy ratio, the shift from present to past is jarring to say the least. We are shown the tragic love affair that the young Aurora (Ana Moreira) developed with Ventura (Carloto Cotta), a friend of her husband (Ivo Müller) while they were living on a vast African colonial homestead at the foot of Mt. Tabu. But more than this, Tabu displays, without a single wink of irony, the oblivious pleasures to be had as a colonial dweller at the height of Empire (Portuguese or any other). Aurora is exceedingly sweet on her pet baby crocodile, which in many respects is emblematic of unreflective ownership of Africa that is the backdrop, and precondition, for all of Aurora’s romance and transgression. While so many other Portuguese films have been quite curiously engaged with this end-of-empire theme (Birds, Last Time I Saw Macao), Tabu does not announce itself as a critique. Rather, the fate of Aurora – “kept” by the black Santa, weak and powerless, confined to a small Lisbon flat – is compared to her” glorious” past, to demonstrate rather directly the raw seduction of this “white man’s burden.” The fact that Gomes imbricates and implicates cinema itself with this Western fantasy only shows Tabu’s deep sophistication.

THREE SISTERS (Wang Bing, France / Hong Kong)

Wang Bing, the most well-known exponent of the New Chinese Documentary “movement,” has taken somewhat new approach in his latest effort. Most of the films for which he is best known – West of the Tracks, Fengming, and even his feature film debut The Ditch – have tended to focus on broad social and political themes; Three Sisters is hardly devoid of such questions, but certainly marks a turn toward the intimate. Wang brings us into the lives of three peasant girls in Xiyangtang Province who are living in relative poverty (the conditions are grim, but probably better than those of some other rural Chinese), abandoned by their mother and only periodically seeing their father who must find work in the city. In the leisurely 153 minutes of this director’s cut (which will hopefully be the version that goes out into the world at large), there is nary a pixel wasted.

The oldest, Yingying, is only 10, but has had to assume almost complete responsibility for her younger sisters Zhenzhen, 6, and Fenfen, 4. Although the girls live near extended family, and are watched by their elderly grandfather a good deal of the time, Wang shows us that the sisters, Yingying in particular, are left to their own devices and expected to maintain a high degree of autonomy, tending to crops, feeding the pigs and chickens, building an open fire inside their dugout-dwelling, and, for Yingying, struggling to stay on top of her studies. Three Sisters does indeed elaborate in painful detail the emotional and physical toll that this semi-abandonment has taken on the family. Fenfen cries a lot, and when the younger sibs fight, Yingying doesn’t show a great deal of sympathy. But is it her job to? (After working in the fields collecting hardened dung for fuel, Yingying is asked by her friend to come over and play. Her affectless response is heartbreaking: “Why?”)

Three Sisters is tough-minded and unsentimental, giving the lie to recent fictional works such as Treeless Mountain and Nobody Knows. However the documentary is by no means a joyless wallow in developing-world miserablism. When the girls’ father returns for an extended stay, his interactions with the kids are appropriately tender and fatherly, cooking cabbage for them and washing their feet at the fire with a hot-water basin. What we witness, then, is the crisis that the Chinese labor market—particularly the concentration of what few jobs there are within the cities—has brought to bear on families, a microcosm for socialist capitalism’s callous march of “progress.” Wang requires every second of his running time, because this story continues to reveal unexpected layers of poetic resonance. To wit: throughout Three Sisters, Yingying wears a sweatshirt and on the back it reads “LOVELY DIARY.” It’s entirely to Wang’s credit that, despite the persistent hardships Yingying endures, this minor detail is in no way ironic.

WALKER (Tsai Ming-liang, China / Hong Kong)

After the rather crippling excesses of Face, Tsai needed to simplify, and that’s precisely what he’s done. Walker, a short film commissioned by the Hong Kong International Film Festival and video-platform site Youku, is not deep; in fact, watching it is a good way to empty the mind of all extraneous things. In it, our beloved Lee Kang-sheng dons the saffron robes of a Buddhist monk. He is carrying home take-out food. While the blaring neon and taxi-swerving streets of Hong Kong hurtle around him, the monk moves ever . . . so . . . slowly . . . barely . . . lifting . . . a . . . foot . . . and . . . then . . . another. Lee never raises his head. He is traversing the cityscape at the rate of a slow-motion video setting, but as an actual live-action performance, to the confusion and amusement of the rest of the world around him. Walker certainly invites “readings.” This other channel of movement, for example, materializes the monk’s supposed detachment from the plane of mundane things, offering a glimpse of a “holy time.” It could also imply that the monk is not entirely “there,” a visitor from the spirit world a la Wings of Desire. But interpretation is probably superfluous for the only physical performance so far this year to even come close to rivaling Denis Lavant’s.

WHEN NIGHT FALLS (Ying Liang, South Korea / China)

The third and most fully realized feature yet from Ying (Taking Father Home; The Other Half), When Night Falls has also proven to be his most controversial. The film is about the widely reported case of Yang Jia, a man who was arrested by Shanghai cops for riding an unlicensed bike. After being beaten by the police, and following months of bureaucratic harassment, Yang lost it, went into the local police station and slew six officers. He was apprehended and subsequently put to death. Ying’s film, however, is about Yang’s mother, Wang Jingmei, who was also abused by police and struggled to have her son’s case reviewed by the Chinese Supreme Court. One of this year’s three Jeonju Digital Films, When Night Falls is a model of righteous, economical filmmaking. Ying employs a halting, declamatory style that calls to mind the “political modernist” cinema of the 60s and 70s, but avoids the formal stridency that was the pitfall of much of that work. Scenes such as Wang (Nai An) calling perfect strangers to plead for help, or standing before a tribunal of judges, find Ying carving out stark, almost unrealistically legible spaces for the action and rhetoric he needs to foreground. What’s more, When Night Falls show us the various events taking their emotional toll on Wang, but in a restrained manner that, for the viewer staggers between distance and immediacy. When Night Falls is a piece of protest cinema whose expressive means are highly subtle, and yet anything but humble. Unlike the protagonist of the classic tale by Kafka, Wang does not sit deferentially “before the law.”

Responses

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  • de Cinema - de Cuir

    “In conception, I would have liked to have seen non-American filmmakers take part…”

    Let’s replace “non-American” with “non-Western” and speak of this in regards to the entire Wavelengths program. In any event, thank you for the great reviews, as always.

  • Michael Sicinski

    Thank you, Greg. As per your comment, I have to say that I think Andréa did a fine job with regards to geographical diversity. The features slate was about 1/4 Asian and / or Middle Eastern, and several other films, such as the Diop or the Abrantes, were non-Western co-pros. Every programmer has to work with what is made within a calendar year, and what films are made available. Looking over the festival circuit from Berlin and Cannes onward, for example, this has just been a slow year in African cinema. It happens.

  • de Cinema - de Cuir

    I’m sure she did a fine job, but maybe not so much with regards to geographical diversity. I’m not sure I can buy the “slow year in Africa” idea. Cannes programmers thought it was a slow year for women. And nothing at all from Eastern Europe? Anyway, sorry for counting beans. I know there are limits to what a programmer can do. Really, I’m just jealous that I can’t make it to Toronto!

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