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TIFF 2015. Correspondences #12

Terrific new work by Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatpong Weerasthakul, Guy Maddin, and Sergei Loznitsa in our latest Toronto festival dispatch.
Dear Fernando,
Did you catch Tsai Ming-liang’s masterpiece Journey to the West at the festival last year? Those hoping that Tsai’s follow-up after that exhilaratingly pure film and the majestically decayed Stray Dogs would have a similarly expansive vision will be disappointed by Afternoon, a two-odd-hour, four-take long video conversation between the director and his inseparable actor-muse-alter-ego-best-friend, Lee Kang-sheng, made as a gallery installation to accompany Stray Dogs but shown in a cinema at TIFF. Yet by its very nature Tsai’s sorrowful minimalism has never been more emotional. The director is a veritable blabbermouth, and whether spurned on either by the mysterious motivation for the project, his interlocuting actor’s dry silence, or nervousness in the presence of the quite noticable camera crew (awkwardly tipping their heads in the frame, taking photographs, and later even asking questions as the conversation dwindles), Tsai Ming-liang nervously but avidly, movingly talks (and talks) of his profound, gut-wrenching, soul seeking need for his actor, his need for Lee Kang-sheng in his work and in his life.
The setting is the mountain retreat the two—not a couple—live at, in what appears a floor or at least room left unrenovated and fallen into the appearance of ruin common to the spiritually haunted spaces found in this director’s fictional features. The camera is pointed at a corner, and a giant window on each side of each wall fills the space with blown out whites and greens of the daylight jungle outside. Meanwhile, sitting on temporarily set-up leather chairs, Tsai stretches, tears up, fidgets, and laughs anxiously, while Lee, variously bored, moved, awkward, and wry, tensely sprawls out in tight white tee and jeans, looking like James Dean in Rebel without a Cause. The confessions from Tsai about his needs for his partner come quickly and emotionally, but also no doubt admitting nothing that the actor nor the familiar crew do not already know, and so what begins as a conversation and emerges as a kind of confession of simultaneous neediness and thankfulness also attains the feeling of performance or repetition—and a stranded one at that, as Lee Kang-sheng barely contributes vocally, instead absorbing Tsai’s remarkably detail-filled stream of consciousness about illness, death, family, friendship and their art together with an impassivity bordering on abstracted, if not sullenly disinterested.
The camera a room’s distance away, I longed for close-ups of the performers to try to see what could possibly be going on in the actor’s mind as his director tries to explain why he absolutely needs to call him every day to check if he’s alright, or to peer close at Tsai as he let loose another burst of giggling, nervous laughter. But we remain at a distance, each edit just resuming the conversation in the same space, as the light’s glow shifts through the day. What with all the talk of death, the ghostly quality is hard to shake: could it be that Tsai is an unsettled spirit visiting the living, or is it the living, anxious Tsai trying desperately to prove communication with the spirit of his inspiration and love, Lee? For all its simplicities, Afternoon is both emotionally rich, tender and formally curious—hardly some throwaway commission or errant gallery piece, it’s an essential milestone in the cinematic sounding of one of cinema’s greatest collaborations and relationships between director and actor.
Toronto this year actually is full of strange background projects or extensions of major directors’ feature filmmaking. Ben Rivers is here with a feature spun out of footage shot behind one movie, and also has a short film based on images shot during the production of another film. Guy Maddin and co-director Evan Johnson have The Forbidden Room at the festival, but as you report, also have a 30-minute short Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, created along with Evan’s brother Galen and based on their time behind the scenes of Hyena Road, a Canadian war movie playing at TIFF directed by mainstream actor-director Paul Gross. And, in a festival playing what I consider the best new film this year, Cemetery of Splendour, its director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has an installation on show nearby at the Art Gallery of Ontario starring its two main actors. (Differentiating these films and then arranging to see them all is but one aspect of the logistical brain scramble involved in attending a festival of this size.)
Apichatpong’s installation, a 2014 piece called Fireworks (Archives), could have easily played as a short film in the Wavelengths program and probably been the best thing there. But why split such hairs? The artwork is programmed in the festival and is without a doubt one of the best things playing in Toronto, period. It is a haunting night tour of the animist sculptures on the grounds of a temple in Isan—ferocious dogs, a goofy monkey, a soldier with a gun—by two separate wanderers (Apichatpong’s muse Jenjira Pongpas and semi-regular cast member Banlop Lomnoi) who seem both stranded in the darkness and curious visitors, taking flash photos of the sculptures to light their ways. The park and these two human are lit variously by fireworks (set by some unseen hand) and strobe or flashing lights, so we get pulses of both color and black and white inside the image, the soundtrack made of the park’s insects and nighttime popped and crackled by the explosives. The bursts of light pierce and break the space into instant fragments and I think Apichatpong even removes some frames from the shots, rendering the actors' movements subliminally stuttered and supernatural. Eventually, Jenjira and Banlop find each other among the gods, animals, symbols and ghosts, grip each other and face a pair of skeletons doing the same. Flash, darkness, sparkle, night. The piece begins and ends with archival photos of, I think, the temple’s founder, whom the director believes is gay and, according to his accompanying note, sees the temple and its animals as an expression of revolt against governing thought and law.
Apichatpong makes it seem so easy, doesn’t he Fernando? In anyone else’s hands such things would sink laden with symbolism and the monumentality of being meaningful. Yet this director presents such things openly for you to take as you wish, simply or richly, as texture, as record, as politics, as light and sculpture, as feeling. It isn’t just vision we love Apichatpong for, it’s this friendliness, the generosity and hospitality of such a film as Fireworks (Archives).
The complete opposite tone is taken in the malicious Bring Me the Head of Time Horton, a video commissioned as a making-of by the production of Hyena Road, a fiction about a Canadian soldier’s participation in the war in Afghanistan. Maddin admits right upfront inside the film itself that he’s doing this for the money (presumably to help finish The Forbidden Room), and proceeds to turn the project into a merciless skewering of actor-producer-star Paul Gross, his film, and war films in general.
Asking on the soundtrack how a director can use cinematic technique to make audiences realizes the gap between filming war and actual human death, as well as employing a more florid narration both theorizing and questioning the nature of vision, of whether one’s eyes are passive ingestors of the world or in fact somehow influence what is seen, Maddin and the Johnsons deploys a myriad of schlocky and oddball effects to paint war as insane, making films about war as nearly as stupid, and making films about making films about war a project worthy of the most profound contempt. The final sequence is of a drone with fake cross-hairs flying around the fake Canadian military camp in fake Afghanistan, while on the soundtrack we hear hockey player Guy Lafleur discussing how best to shoot hockey pucks but also sounding like instructions both for how to photograph something and how to shoot to kill. A darkly humorous, parasitical attack of writhing disdain for a filmmaker and the mission of his film (if not image culture in general), Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton is not only one of the best films here at the festival, it is one of the most important aspects of the event itself, as it is the rare—if not only—film here to turn against that which created it, attacking film from the inside.
A friend here was commenting about the usually empty aphorisms of festivals and their programmers that a festival's selection of films is in "conversation" or "dialog" with one another, when in fact it is usually only the audience who proactively creates this dialog with themselves—or, even better, among each other—rather than any film that really stretches beyond itself to communicate with another. The reference was to Tim Horton, in a truly vicious dialog with Hyena Road, but I found another film here in dialog not with a Toronto 2015 film but with a film from last year, Sergei Loznitsa's stoic, mastershot documentary study of the mass gatherings during the revolution in Ukraine, Maidan. He returns this year to the festival with The Event, a documentary that inverts much of what made Maidan exciting: that was in vivid color, this in black and white; that film was essentially shot now, this shot in 1991 during public announcements of the fall of the Soviet Union; that was shot by Loznitsa in Ukraine, this by others (archival footage, mostly shot by documentary film school students) in Russia.
An orchestration of found footage and sound, the camera runs through outdoor crowds observing people as individuals and as masses as they variably hear of the dissolution of the government, Gorbachev's disappearance, the assertion of a new junta, the halting of that coup d'etat, and a final assertion of the new Russian state. Much of the soundtrack is a clever collage of crowd recordings and official announcements that allow us, in a constructed but never less than engrossing manner, to watch public crowd reactions in Leningrad as the government roils and turns over upon itself. We see none of the state's meetings, the power struggles and conspiracies; the only indoor footage glimpsed are the official broadcast speeches which may or may not accurately reflect what is going on unseen behind the walls of the government and the guns of the military. The crowd reacts again and again to each sequence of announcements—the film separates the various stages of the toss-and-turmoil by cutting to black—as their nation appears to make decisions for them, this way and that, calling things coups and revolutions, decrying this government official or bureaucrat or that, praising or chastising the military. And I think back to Maidan and its huge, active crowds hoping for a new future for their country and I see so little difference between these remarkably different moments.
The Event ends finally inside the apparatus, as we see the government archives being sealed away from what the participants assume will be meddlers and erasers of history. But then Loznitsa cuts to black and a title card explaining the charges this evidence contains have never been brought, that most in power during the Soviet era continued to be in power afterwards. And so, indeed, Maidan, taking place almost twenty years later, feels like it could be a sequel to this film, beginning the very next day.
Warmly,
Danny

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