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TIFF 2013. Correspondences #7

Our TIFF 2013 correspondence continues with thoughts on new films by Wang Bing and Jean-Marie Straub.

Dear Fern,

We're absolutely on the same page with Hong's Our Sunhi, a film that came at just the right time to rejuvenate me with its droll, supreme simplicity. That it avoids Hong's charming penchant for dreams and discreet dream objects, as well as systematic structuralism, subsuming these into a nominally realist narrative, makes its delightful ideas and sadly hilarious improvisations particularly refreshing.

A day after the Hong screening, the film's terribly clever, roundelay story of three men's separate impressions of a young woman, her impression of herself and each man in turn as forming a kind of circuit loop of information, each informing the other so that any original thought, impression or character seems a group-effort amalgam, made me think—surprise, surprise—of our information age, highly wired, furiously opinionating festival experience. Friends and colleagues spending concentrated time together trading quips and insights and offhand characterizations of films, passing audience remarks, programmer and director comments, catalog notes and press packets, Tweets and roundups, trade reviews and blogs, all working towards some middle-ground palimpsest, where, especially as the festival winds down and true exhaustion of mind and body sets in, it becomes increasing difficult to distinguish between one's original thoughts and those overheard, read once, discussed thoroughly, and/or imagined, and similarly seeded into the world and unknowingly reaped later. I think Hong's cinema speaks to the conspiratorialist in us all!

But back to the films.

Wang Bing's camera nearly becomes a prisoner alongside other Chinese in 'Til Madness Do Us Apart, a documentary with rare access to a mental hospital cum prison dedicated to an incredible spectrum of patients cum prisoners ranging from those in genuine need of care to those picked up for brawling, committed by family members, or simply unknown miscreants found and locked away. With only two exceptions the nearly four hour film remains trapped along with the male prisoners in the top floor of the building, which has a square patio in its center and as such the single hallway, open to that center but barred, traces a shape around it which the patients—and the camera—wander, as there is nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. This lone, looped hallway opens only to spare, cramped bedrooms, one bathroom, and a single TV room; except for the TV to watch, all the activity the patients have available to them is to shuffle around, talk to one another, or, like Wang's camera, simply watch and follow their fellow man.

In this spare edifice with the color and texture of worn sandpaper the living conditions have a terrifying equalizing effect: nearly all patients/inmates look and act the same, and only truly erratic behavior suggests some might be mentally ill and others not, some very sad and others not, some very upset and others not. Treatment is limited and evaluation is not apparent, the doctors only occasionally hovering around the frame's edge. As such, the film is given to the sustained sense of resignation that permeates the punishing, monotonous limitations of the space (other floors can be seen, including one for women, as well as surrounding buildings outside the windows of the complex) and the passive demeanor of the inhabitants, who only rarely act out and seem to spend most of their time, day and night, trying to sleep. A lone revelation of the lower level feeding floor seems like a godsend, especially as the men are so constantly trying to obtain more and different food from their visitors, whose rare appearances and surprisingly lengthy stays likewise seem like mana from the heavens even to those who just get to spectate awkward or moving reunions. The sole chance for the camera to leave the complex—following a prisoner granted leave to go home to his parents' hovel—shows us an exterior world of options for these men as desolate and bleak in its openness as the hospital-prison is in its claustrophobic, false shelter.

Jean-Marie Straub's Un conte de Michel de Montaigne provides remarkable and unexpected insight into—and, perhaps, a promise for—Wang's imprisoned subjects. A stark but intimate and engrossing experience, separating yet integrating an urgent, placating extract of Beethoven (the third movement of his String Quartet No. 15, Op.132 in A minor, tellingly titled "A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lyndian Mode"), an incredible text be Montaigne from his Essais, first the voice and then the presence of Barbara Ulrich who reads the text, and Paul Landowski's Parisian statue of Montaigne from 1933. The central text—variously read by Ulrich off-camera over a black frame, on-camera in front of a giant fireplace indoors somewhere (a siren and various muffled voices in the near distance make subtle impressions), and, eventually, next to or near the statue—is, typically of Straub, lengthy and incredibly dense, but here rooted in a central story of the author's near-death upon being run down by a horse, a shock and experience producing a profound awareness of his body's limitations and mind's extent.

The rumination inspired by this story center on a startlingly heightened sense of a need for the soul to "declare itself;" that under threat of imminent death one is called to vivid expressivity. As such, Straub's short, filmed outside the Sorbonne, is a kind of incitement to those, living now in current or imminent oppression or under threat, not only to embrace this sharpened, self-and-world questioning mind state, but then to be called up to act upon this pained awareness.  The mirthful demeanor of Landowksi's statue and Ulrich's pointed but insular reading quiet the film down even in its sharp separation of image from image (or image from non-image), voice-off and on, sync sound and unsynced, and a monument to the past filmed in today's light under today's leaves. The immersive text—or speech, I should say—variously weaving between narrative, reflection, and direct questions ends on the seemingly slight note that only one can know oneself; yet the "one" Montaigne indicates is all who have lived under the threat of death, all that should be aware of nature's "true and natural visage," and who return from it to see the world differently. One can only hope the "mad" Chinese have been granted such vision; since Wang refrains from interviewing his subjects, we'll never know precisely how they feel or what they do (or do not) want to do in their limited world or the greater one from which they are kept. Or indeed if they are truly mad or not; and if they are, what this madness truly is.

I saw you in the dark distance of the theater, Fernando, at the tremendous, beautifully curated Wavelengths program that included the Straub, pairing it with new short work by João Pedro Rodrigues and a stunning work of archival fiction from Miguel Gomes. Michael Sicinski has already written for us on all of these shorts, but I'm curious to know what you made of these other films, and of how the program worked together.

All my best, as our festival and days together wind down,


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