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TIFF 2014. Correspondences #2

Our annual film festival correspondence continues with films by Peter Ho-Sun Chan, Takashi Miike, and Sono Sion.
Over Your Dead Body
Dear Fern,
Familiar faces. Indeed, it is so very good to see yours, one year later. The steadfastness of friends through this world and in this industry is for me always a surprise, and always touching, especially in light of the mutability of life and cinema.
Familiar faces...Ventura's: that's another story. Seeing this man, this actor, this figure in Horse Money was like happily visiting an aging relative only to discover that across the span of missed time you can see the creeping effects of dementia. (“Blood drips on the floor but you don’t see the razor,” a widow in the film mourning, angrily remarks.) Standing tall as ever and poised with attempted self-control, nonetheless you see Ventura's long fingers tremble, in the darkness a nosferatu wandering a prison-hospital of memories and sins, psychic and bodily pain. The expressionist shroud in which he wanders confounds time, merges events, and splays out, making a deadweight existence otherworldly. Metallic lighting creates holy pools of visible beings and spaces of work and institution at times claustrophobic, at others cavernous. So, too, the expansive and receding mind and soul of this beleaguered once-working, once-fathering man, still haunted by and haunting the Portuguese's treatment of those from Cape Verde, of the poor, of the workers, and still capable of sin after all these years of regret. Ventura’s body, aged beyond his years, trembles, and the sound is a shuddering rustle like fluttering moth wings; there are also others like him, given brief, vividly sculptural portraits, the old and the injured. He is not special amongst the other inmates or patients, his is just one sepulchral tale of many. Etched in dark glow, pulled this way and that by psychic digressions, the film seems a group exorcism, a conjuration of the past through an invocation of an ill present. Ultimately, the film is an incantation to survive into the future.
How come, Fernando, Pedro Costa has been working with such affecting ingenuity in digital cinema for all these years and yet we've barely seen the effects of his radical, politicized cinematic poetry perpetuate out in the world? Hundreds of years ago, artists would travel to other cities to be struck by and learn from the new innovations in image-making and ways of seeing the world of painters like Titian and Caravaggio. Do filmmakers so rarely watch each other's work? Since working in the digital medium, Costa has always pointed a new, deeply moving way that looks like nothing else out there, but why is the path behind him so empty? It's been some considerable time since making a feature film, since 2009's Ne change rien, but that was of old footage, really we're talking Colossal Youth, eight years ago. Perhaps with this new, crepuscular poem, ending so powerfully as it does with the sequence turning an elevator into an echo chamber of memory and admonitions that the director used in his short film for the Centro histórico omnibus, we'll finally see more filmmakers be as struck by him as film viewers like ourselves are. The film begins with photographs of American poor by Jacob Riis, a continent and a century away from Costa's own transmutation and ennoblement of the stories of his country and people. Perhaps it'll take another century for his cinema to be quoted at the beginning of whatever art form becomes the popular revelation of the humanity which we too often ignore, misunderstand, marginalize, and rob of voices, stories, and visions.
Peter Ho-Sun Chan's Dearest also includes images of reality to confirm and feed back into its drama, television's images of the real people whose lives were effected and wrecked by the spate of child abductions in China which have inspired this dutifully illustrating drama. Ann Hui, who also has a film showing in Toronto, would have been a far better choice to direct such a film clearly intended more as a social message based on case histories with flairs of exaggerated sentiment than any kind of story for the cinema revealing the complexities of the grief of losing and looking for missing children, or those of the crimes that cause such sorrow.
"Look at this city, it is so wealthy," says a self-centered young attorney to a peasant woman trying to get her daughter back in the big city of Shenzhen. But Chan surrounds them only with digital, out of focus blackness of the night; the film refuses its surroundings to be more than window-dressing, its humans more than melodramatic types. Yet possibilities are within; as with the director's superior Wuxia, this film's pretentious ambition makes for an expansive story eventually revealing structural audacity and ambiguity: an abducted child is found, but the perpetuator has died and his wife thinks the boy—as well as another child, a small girl—is hers. The film then swaps viewpoints for that of this rural mother, an unknowing criminal, whose "children" are also bizarrely "taken" from her—legally, by the government—and follows her travails to get them back. Events piles up in the back third of the film such that a more savvy, less respectful director might engage the craziness, the criss-crossing lines of pregnancies, laws, human relationships, crimes, emotional bonds and frazzled nerves spawned by threats and promises of children taken, returned, dead, and born, of city kids and country kids mixing, of parents from each fighting over babies, abduction, adoption, and abandonment. The final, frayed TV images immediately capture this mixed mania, made all the more manic by the presence of television cameras and media attention, something Chan's film questionably keeps out of his dramatization of that true story.
"I'm happy to hear they're doing fine," intones and moans hangdog person after hangdog person in Roy Andersson's A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Those fine people we never see, except perhaps for two simple, wordless shots of young, blissful pairs; the rest, as is familiar from Andersson's recent films, Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007), are pasty despondents barely eking through the director's droll, deadpan single-take moving still lives. (The opening, hilarious shot, of a characteristically frumpy and dour man inspecting birds, including the titular pigeon, in glass cages at a museum, is no doubt an analogy to our own cinema-rumpled peering at the under-glass tableaux created by the director.) Each scene is shown in only one, usually lengthy shot, and nearly every shot is at once a joke and a minute parable, not often successful at either, aggregating generally against the miserableness, melancholy, death and discord produced by our dying world's debt, consumerism, war and cruelty.
Neither particularly funny nor particularly revealing—subjective qualities no doubt, the film just won the top prize at Venice—there is nevertheless something so very pleasurable about Andersson's compositions, as if he's been toiling all these years between movies to sweep the floors, prime and paint the walls, and vacuum the carpets, to work so long and hard to achieve his diorama boxes of sublime, sparse cleanliness that one must admire the effort and the effect. Andersson’s a proud host showing his home after a thorough housecleaning. No passing snark, this actually hit me surprisingly hard by the sixth (or so ) shot—in a movie with so few shots and each that last so long you tend to remember most—where the whole left half of the frame was taken up by an obliquely angled stairwell wall, upon which was carefully dangling a single, solitary red button. All the power in the world seemed embodied in that small, unused item and decor, under which, nearby, a cleaning woman softly moaned with comically identical repetition, and again expressed her happiness, so unapparent on the surface, that the person on the other end of the line was doing fine. Repeated as it is so often in the film, it seems less a recognition of some off-screen, suggested joy, than a mantra to ward off the ails of the world.
From the first shot of Andersson's film, or from Costa's film, you know what you're in for—the filmmakers' ability to encapsulate a tone, a visual world, a trajectory of intent and results in just a single shot being characteristic of a certain kind of art-house cinema. The cinema of Takashi Miike is the opposite: you never know what to expect going in, and often what to expect as the film unfurls. His tidy, arty horror-theatre film here, the neatly titled Over Your Dead Body, kept me off-guard for nearly its whole, brief length. I felt like I never had ground to stand on, it so immediately moves from opening scenes of a fucking couple to that couple splitting to go to work on dress rehearsals for a play of a ghost story, rehearsals where you see behind the scenes persons but never instructions or any other artistic interventions, that I could not determine whether the amorphous story before me was a story of actors, of the play, of both or of neither.
The bulk of the film is in fact the resplendently and fastidiously produced play—an abridged and broad adaptation of the often re-told 19th century kabuki play Yotsuya Kwaidan—taking place on an ingeniously used rotating stage, about a nihilist samurai in the Tatsuya Nakadai tradition killing men and climbing over women to achieve a success in life to which he's at best ambivalent. Vaguely, the actor who plays the samurai, too, echoes this amoral indifference, sleeping with his leading actress but openly seducing others in the play, such that the stage and the outside-the-stage becomes an echo chamber of unscrupulous behavior gradually paid back in blood, fear, and insanity.
That the play itself, featuring the blank-faced and dispassionate man and his archetypal, self-deprecating, masochistic wife, is unpleasant to watch, and that its currents of jealousy and misanthropy feed back to the "outside world"—or perhaps the world back into the play, and into its history—make watching Over Your Dead Body nearly as unpleasant as the play. The distinction is purposefully blurred, as ambiguous as the terms of reality and psychology are, and as repulsive as the actor-samurai's character is. Indeed, the ultimate takeaway from this cloistered, sharply photographed variation of the Japanese tradition of moral ghost stories is the convergence of the figure of the feudal samurai and the diva-actor. Across history and suddenly before us we see enacted the egoism of these self-satisfied and aloof emblems of masculinity, see the sins they wrought, and the just punishment meted out to them by women and by the world.
Tokyo Tribe
It was a bit hard to determine where Takashi Miike's film stood, but it was a whooping, easy pleasure to see what fellow gonzo cinema practitioner Sono Sion was up to with Tokyo Tribe. A riotous hip-hop musical appropriately playing to delighted late-night crowds in the Midnight Madness section, Sono's nocturnal, studio-bound gangland rapping extravaganza, with its long takes, glimmering colors, and relentlessly unflagging energy connects lines from Love Me Tonight through Umbrellas of Cherbourg to Streets of Fire, Takashi Miike's own recent brawling high school musical For Love's Sakeand the Step Up movies. The film's bountiful, draining joie de vivre (Adam Cook leaned over to me half way through, giddy and disoriented: “Most exhausting movie ever made”) and infectious silliness, especially in the skin-deep appropriation of American hip-hop culture into a Japanese faux-yakuza street gang idiom, has more moment by moment glee (another reference) than no doubt any film at TIFF.
But caveats must be made. The rapping is for the most part terrible, even if the wall to wall beats and mostly rapped dialog give the film its continued dose of energy; the filmmakers apparently worked with local talent, but the corrosive creativity heard in some of Japan's best hip-hop culture such as DJ Krush or Cappablack is woefully missing. And as usual with this period of the director's filmmaking, the film runs at least 30 minutes too long and puts too much faith in pure high-speed pacing. With few emblematic figures among its cast of supposed hooligans and gang leaders to bring human charisma or emotion into play, the characters mostly amount to figures of (female) whores and (male) brutes, stunt men and rap video honeys. As the runtime wears on, the experience morphs from cacophonous audiovisual pageant to a browbeating repetitiveness. (As the mind wanders, one longs for an American version, with gangs of the Wu-Tang and Black Hippy crews facing off those led by A$AP Rocky, MF Doom, and Shabazz Palaces, all eventually fighting against rap overlord Kayne West in a fat suit.)
Tokyo Tribe’s full throttle attack on the senses while exuberant goes too far and draws out its own thin story like taffy, revealing how its antecedents did some of the same things better by channeling creativity rather than fragmenting it. Among a limited set of memorable human beings, only actress Nana Seino stands vividly: a won't-take-any-shit-from-anyone beauty in a ballerina-pink dress given too much panty fan service, her physical prowess in martial acrobatics and fiercely resisting, deriding insistence that the gang that captures her rape until she is killed, then pimp out her dead body, embodies a female figure who goes for the throat in a way one wishes the rest of the characters and indeed the film itself would, tearing at the surface conceits and assumptions of a new globalized world of pop rap.
And on that enervated note, Fernando, I’ll leave the next dispatch to you, as I head to Wavelength’s short film programs and recover from the excesses of Japanese cinema.
My very best,
Danny

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