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TIFF 2015. Correspondences #10

Sylvia Chang crowned queen of Toronto, masked wrestling midgets and aged hookers, island witchcraft and more in our latest festival report.
Dear Fernando,
I think we have a queen of the Toronto International Film Festival 2015: Taiwanese actress Sylvia Chang. Here she has a supporting role in Jia Zhangke's Mountains May Depart, co-stars in and co-wrote Johnnie To's Office, and culminates her contribution by directing the lovely Murmur of the Hearts.
A dramatically slender, subtly fragmented and heartfelt melodrama, Chang's story is of three young adults trying to move forward in their lives emotionally long after each of their parents let them down as children. Two are brother and sister of the small Green Island off the eastern coast of Taiwan, siblings whose beloved mother took the girl away from their abusive father to live in Taipei, stranding the boy geographically and emotionally from his mother, sister and mainland, and isolating the sister from her roots. The third man, the sister's boyfriend, is a bit of an outlier in the story, not originating from the island and somewhat of an intruder in the story of disconnected siblings, yet folded among them when his professional troubles begins to sabotaged his relationship. He too has a missing parent, a father who drove him to become a boxer, a vocation he's now realizing he will only failed at—all three stymied by these unresolved histories that permeate their feelings and relationships in the present.
Expanding this intimate family drama beyond the brother and sister suggests a broader reach of Murmur of the Hearts sensitive and lucid exploration of how growing into full person involves fully coming to terms with whatever pieces may be missing from one's upbringing and from one's past. (The Green Island once housed a prison, and the quiet island-mainland dynamic cleverly enriches the spare scenario.) After unobtrusively integrating flashbacks to fill in the piqued, remembered moments in each character's life, the film's emotional core comes to beautiful realization in two incredibly moving encounters between the brother and his mother and the boxer and his father, a segue into fantasy that takes the film into a dreamworld of memories, confrontation and forgiveness. The siblings were raised Christian and forgiveness seems a central tenet to inner struggles; with the dream-memories, the occasional appearances by a plump, frosty-haired and slightly unreal man who addresses the trio with strange directness, and a central childhood story the mother tells of mermaids and catching, caring for and releasing fish, Chang underscores her drama by connecting emotional fallout with religiousness, spirituality and metaphysics. With with this deft, clear filmmaking that weaves serenely if not quite convincingly between the art-house and the multiplex, Murmur of the Hearts glows fine and full of characters who think and feel and whose storyteller treats them with intelligent, attentive empathy.
How do you handle the abrupt shift in tones and emotions tumbling at Toronto from one screening to the next, Fernando? The soft refinement of Murmur of the Hearts was forced to live within me alongside Mexican director Arturo Ripstein's most-appropriately named Bleak Street. A tenement drama of hoarse desperation and fiercely grit-ridden texture, its impoverished tale is of the fated paths crossed of a pair of twin midget wrestlers and two failed streetwalkers. Shooting in high contrast black and white in well-worn apartments and dirt-strewn alley ways, Ripstein immediately conjures a compassionate and unerring spell of weariness and hatred, dosed with strange, borderline surreal touches (the wrestlers, for example, refuse to remove their masks, even while while smoking, drinking and having sex) which push the film in tone and texture past any kind of grim miserabilism and closer to the spirit of Buñuel's Nazarin or Los Olvidados. (But neither of those films would include a line like the threat said by our astounding "elderly hooker" heroine to her mute mother: "I will douse you in gasoline and light you to warm my dawn!")
In fact, I felt a strong tradition behind this film, despite myself being entirely unfamiliar with the director's work (he is programmed in the Masters section alongside Hou, Bellocchio, and Apichatpong) and off-kilter Mexican cinema in general. (At Locarno, in the retrospective dedicated to famed Mexican cinematographer Alex Phillips, I caught the truly lurid 1933 two-act melodrama The Woman of the Port, whose lengthy squat in a subterranean dive is brother in immoral possibilities.) You told me the title more accurately translated to "Street of Bitterness," Fernando, and both bleak and bitter ring very true here. It's a hard movie to watch but I found it enthralling in its immersion, with twisted touches, into something like a far more grim version of The Lower Depths or The Crime of M. Lange: a consolidated, impoverished milieu driven to sorrowful attempts at subsiding and harsh resignation at life's ill treatment.
After this, I returned to the final shorts film program in the Wavelengths section ready for some re-invigoration. Michael has already written so well about these films, Fernando, I'll try to spare complete repetition and tell you about two in particular that really impressed me.
Samuel M. Delgado and Helena Girón's Neither God Nor Santa Maria in its off-hand, picturesque portraiture of both a far-flung island and an aged local resident related to the filmmakers—in this case, Delgado's grandmother who lives on the Canary Islands—reminded me of a personal favorite film, A Portrait of Ga (if you haven't seen this flowered bit of loveliness, you can watch it on YouTube)...crossed with The X-Files. The supernatural feel permeates and complicates what might have originally been a simple documentary, originating from our inability to locate these images in time (or, more accurately, history), partially because of the primordial landscape of the island and the grandmothers's older ways, but also because the movie was shot on expired film stock, lending it the crackled, scarred and off-colored quality of something long buried and recently excavated. But crucially it also carries a borderline uncanny sensation through its soundtrack, which uses ethnographic audio recordings from the 1960s of Canary Islands residents talking about their experiences with witchcraft. Tales of teleportation, unexplained blackouts, and magic surround this old lady and her ancient-seeming island, and combine with the decrepit texture of the images to impossibly tangle documentation, poetry, ethnography, oral history, and fantasy into a potent celluloid brew.
Finally, Engram of Returning, the new film by one of my favorite contemporary experimental filmmakers, Daïchi Saïto, I really have no capacity to describe unless it were pulsing and flitting right now before my eyes—and around my ears, as musician Jasper Sharp’s cyclical soundtrack of circular breathing saxophone was essential to and inextricable from the film's rapture. The deep-colored images come across the cinemascope frame in swathes and patches, sometimes feeling like embossed or imprinted colors pounded onto the celluloid, sometimes like landscapes or close-ups smeared across part or all of the black frames. They go in and out of legibility: a middle section clearly looks like shots from traveling vantage points, out of an airplane window, driving car or train, but these are bookended by equally long sections whose source for the original image, after it’s been so treated and hand-processed by Saïto, loses all but the most abstract and intuitive relationship to any kind of camera recording. I think of course, Fernando, of Stan Brakhage’s desire to create films of images that precede our ability to understand and name what we see. Sharp’s playing (and breathing: he takes a couple pauses between movements in which we movingly hear him recovering his breath) pushes us forward through the dark frame to encounter these patches of color and movement, calling them up before us again and again, anew each time, until after so much black touched and re-touched with color the image gives way and the music falls off and I’m not sure where I was or where I’ve been, but I know I have arrived here now.
And where are you at, Fernando?
Warmly,
Danny

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