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TIFF 2014. Correspondences #5

The fifth entry in our TIFF '14 Correspondences looks at new films by Mia Hansen-Løve, Shinya Tsukamoto, Peter Strickland, and Im Kwon-taek.

Eden

Dear Danny,

How I look forward to your Wavelengths reports! They always strike me not so much as write-ups on the festival’s experimental end but as reports from a parallel world where extraterrestrial colors, patterns, and movements are the ecstatic norm. And, as a cinephile who gravitates mostly toward more classical narratives, I find these journeys into pure form both daunting and liberating. Which leads me to your closing question—how indeed to make your way through so many titles and programs? I try to balance out my dyed-in-the-wool auteurist side with a more exploratory side, catching films from established directors along with ones from unfamiliar talents. An exhilarating gamble, if a risky one. We only have so much time, after all: Blink and a day is gone.

Or, in the case of Eden, blink and two whole decades have drifted by. Mia Hansen-Løve is a director keenly attuned to temporality, to the ebb and flow of the lives of her characters, and this is her most ambitious work yet. Unfurling from the early 1990s to the present and split into two major panels, it glides on the highs and lows of its moony young protagonist, a French disc-jockey (played by Félix De Givry) based on Hansen-Løve’s brother Sven. As the years pass, there’s romance with various women, a veritable catalogue of changing musical styles, and the forlorn feeling of success just out of reach. It’s a sprawling canvas compared to the intimate ones of her previous films, and it somewhat suffers I think from this narrative expansion: the gentle yet intense emotional modulations from The Father of My Children and Goodbye First Love are still very much palpable here, but the story’s sundry leaps and gaps make them more diaphanous than evocative. There are countless sparks of pleasure all the same, from the handheld camera’s curlicues of blissful movement to the immersive score’s shifting thumps. And above all there’s the electric melancholia of a DJ lost at an unending party, his virtuosic control over the nightclub’s beats contrasting with the torpid handle on his own life.

There’s a different play with time in Fires on the Plain: Though there are bursts of blinding light, Shinya Tsukamoto’s adaptation of Shohei Ooka’s anti-war novel plays like a dismayingly endless night. (“The sun goes down so fast,” groans one of the cadaverous figures met along the way.) On an island in the Philippines during the tail’s end of WWII, the tropical landscape is emerald-green one moment and darkened by diseased-looking filters the next. Basically kicked out into the jungle with only chunks of yam and a grenade filling his pockets, a tubercular Japanese grunt (grimaced by Tsukamoto himself) stumbles past half-insane survivors, hails of American bullets and whole fields littered with purplish corpses. The terrain is mauled, torched and drenched with spilled viscera until, as befits the monstrous-transformation specialist behind the Tetsuo films, it resembles the setting of a zombie apocalypse. Kon Ichikawa in his 1959 version was a sensible professional figuring out the most meticulous way to translate the novel’s horrors into a still-classical medium; Tsukamoto by comparison is a madman frantically embodying rather than adapting Ooka’s barbaric vision, obliterating any distance between filmmaker and material as he smears himself with blood and dirt onscreen. The single-minded piling of nightmarish images has scabrous integrity. (Between this and Over Your Dead Body and Tokyo Tribe, Danny, it looks like we’ve touched most bases of Japan’s current gonzo cinema.)

The Duke of Burgundy

If Fires on the Plain often suggests a living-dead movie, The Duke of Burgundy feels closer to a droll vampire comedy. From the bits of the giallo thriller-within-a-thriller teased in his previous film, Berberian Sound Studio, it was clear that Peter Strickland was well-versed in the lyrical sleaze of 70s European sexploitation. Here he dives into the fever-dreams of Radley Metzger and Walerian Borowczyk, not for facile pastiche re-creation but for a rigorous and opulent portrait of a sadomasochistic romance. “As long as I’m used, I remain alive,” sighs a young woman (Chiara D’Anna) who, in her demure maid uniform, lies at the stockings-wrapped feet of her imperious mistress (Sidse Babett Knudsen). On such ritualistic scenarios rests the bond between the two women, who attend lectures on Nabokovian insects when not contemplating adding a device known as “the human toilet” to their sex-game repertoire. Like Berberian, it’s a hermetic tale that builds toward a protagonist’s release/breakdown, with avant-garde bursts that threaten to tear apart the film’s elegant veneer. Less meta-layered, it’s also warmer, sexier and funnier. An expert of mood, Strickland can lose himself in the texture of aroused flesh or hardwood floors yet he never loses sight of his sapphic characters or the gentle joke underlying their sex-games, a deadpan reminder that a whole lot of hard work goes into any good, kinky relationship.

The Duke of Burgundy is Strickland’s third film. Revivre is Im Kwon-taek’s 102nd, and quite consciously an old man’s saga. Beginning with a funeral but proceeding in shuffled flashbacks, the Korean veteran follows an aging cosmetics impresario (a terrifically dignified Ahn Sungki) as he oscillates awkwardly between dedicated caretaker for his cancerous wife (Kim Ho-jung) and potential sugar-daddy for a sultry new employee (Kim Qyu-ri). Modest and ruminative, the film doesn’t have the formal adventurousness of Im’s recent period dramas but it exudes a humble and heartfelt wisdom. As enraptured by the young siren as the protagonist, Im’s camera is nevertheless squarely focused on human maturity, on how the spiritual illumination that comes with accumulated years is inescapably tied to corporeal indignities. (There are two unbroken takes, with Ahn cleaning and washing his ailing wife, that are more honest and compassionate than the entirety of Haneke’s Amour.) I came out of it thinking about age, my own a bit but mostly that of artists who’ve lived life and can scrutinize it so lucidly on the screen.

Gimme whatcha got, Kasman!

Fern

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