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TIFF 2015. Correspondences #8

A bone-crushing return to form from one of Hong Kong's finest, plus more highlights from the avant-garde in our latest festival dispatch.
Dear Fernando,
The hopes one places in films can be a strange thing: that certain something, whatever it may be, that was special once, twice, or many times about the work of an actor, a director, a genre—how that instills the yearning for that very thing to be reconstituted again anew. (And yet, of course, the precariousness of this desire; thus the baffling response, for example, that South Korean director Hong Sang-soo keeps doing the same old thing.)
I love Hong Kong director Cheang Soi, whom I have written about before, an action-thriller auteur of unique vision and energy. His international presence and reputation were upgraded over the last few years with a two-film stint at Johnnie To's Milkyway Image company—Accident and Motorway—as his style of gritty pursuit was sandpapered to the sleek, honed feel of To and Wai Ka-fai's company. And then he leapt even further: into a ginormous mainland action extravaganza based on the ubiquitous Monkey King legend. Pumped full of green screens, special effects of erratic quality, Donnie Yen in full monkey suit, and a celestial Chow Yun-fat as the emperor of heaven, the film quite literally replaced nearly all that moved and excited me about this filmmaker with the stilted artifice of computer ambitions. (Remarkably, it retained some strong thematic echoes with Cheang's earlier work, but the exhaustingly overspent result proves how consistency of themes alone do not make a good artist.)
And so we come to his next film, SPL 2: A Time for Consequences, the sequel to a movie I had no idea existed. (I've been told there is almost no connection between the two except for two shared actors, and hopefully upon release in the U.S. the title will be stripped down to its subtitle of high morality.) How happy I am to say this director is back from the wilderness of modern Chinese super productions! Not that A Time for Consequences skimps on vision; if anything, Cheang has an incredibly rare sense of scope and this callused fighting film feels far more expansive than most globetrotting Hollywood actioners. This grand canvas is spawned from the filmmaker's dedication to stories of human tenacity: A Time for Consequences feels like it hurtles from one location to another, ping ponging through crosscutting here to there, driving, boating, doing anything, shark-like, to keep moving so that its characters can survive.
Survival is Cheang's great theme and here he overloads it: a villain in Hong Kong (Louis Koo stylized as an anime metrosexual goth), dying of a rare heart disease, needs to steal the heart of his brother, and uses a drug addicted undercover cop (Wu Jing) for the kidnapping. When that goes sour and the agent's identity is revealed—in a sprawling sequence raining bullets at a public boat depot—the cop is sent to a jail in Thailand that is secretly being used to imprison promising donors for illegal organ trade. But guess who is a guard there? Tony Jaa. And guess who's blood type his leukemia-suffering daughter matches? That of the Hong Kong cop. But they don't know that yet, and the two fight one another again and again as Wu Jing tries to escape and Jaa's naive guard, oblivious to his prison's cruelties, hits back hard. The two are equal protagonists in this film, and while their intertwined fates are separated at first by country, cell phones link everyone, Cheang being one of the only filmmakers who understands the dramatic possibilities of the phone, where missed calls, phone tracing, sent images, emoticons and more criss-cross good guy to bad, country to country, tying the action together and flinging it in new directions.
If that seems confusing you haven't even seen it in action, which skips from prison in Thailand back to copwork in Hong Kong (featuring an appreciably gruff and dedicated Simon Yam) for Cheang to forge an essentially religious network of coincidences and fated connections as bodies are exchanged, swapped, paired, hostaged, kidnapped and traded. The body is all in this film, the locus for disease but also for strength. With martial arts experts Wu Jing, Jaa, and Zhang Jin (as the dapper evil prison warden), A Time for Consequences jumps from sentimental pining for health to flying kicks and head crushing martial arts brawls, many of which, including a madly tumultuous prison riot culminating in a struggle for a cell phone call for freedom, and a final ménage à trois fight to the death set to Vivaldi's Four Seasons, string gasping moment after gasping moment into scherzos of brute force and desperate physical perseverance. The film certainly milks a bit too much from Jaa's po-faced good-fathering of his dying daughter, but in sidelong moments and unexpected reversals worthy of the film's terrific fights, Cheang provides grace notes of sorrow and the pure vitality of coincidence to power the film's pathos. "If you believe, you can keep going. God will not toy with us," Simon Yam intones, after being beaten, stabbed, and beaten again. Everyone, hero and villain, gets kicked to absolute shit in this movie, if not additionally stabbed and/or shot. If you thought American action heroes absorb an irrational level of violence you've never seen a film by Cheang Soi, whose men are pushed to the edge and beyond, testing both body and the will to stay alive. Suffice to say, A Time for Consequences is a clobbering return to form for the maestro of brute survival.
After the bloodied physicality of Cheang’s film I discovered a welcome but equally invigorating reprieve in Björn Kämmerer’s Navigator, which opened the third night of Wavelengths shorts, a selection curated around diverse issues of location and mapping.  Kämmerer’s was the most abstract film of the evening, and seemed to usher in or more accurately call forth to guide those that followed by studying with rhythmic, geometric montage close-ups of beveled and curved pieces of glass. Though shot so closely to the reflective surface it was unclear what the object actually was, it looked to my eyes like a Fresnel lens or some other similar device used by lighthouses to extend the reach and expanse of its beam. Its movement in the frame and the editing’s juxtaposition of those movements against one another sent out a call of cool-colored, indiscernible reflection and gleaming surface light. It was less than ten minutes long but I could have watched it for hours: So far it’s the closest to “pure cinema” the festival has revealed.
The other inspiring piece in the same program was one of far more associative mystery. Mary Helena Clark’s Palms is made up of several sections each with disconnected sound sources: sounds of tennis played over images of two hands slightly twitching and moving; car headlights (or darkness-shrouded images that look like them) at night soundtracked by sing-songy mantras about improving one’s life; whip-pans of a gorgeous green tennis court against the tick-tock of a metronome; and finally a strangely processed, blown out image of a fluttering Japanese flag. When I wrote in praise of Clark’s Orpheus (Outtakes) several years ago, I used the term “subterranean” to describe its ligaments between scenes, and the word is just as vital for Palms, whose episodes are each beautiful but in different ways, whose sounds find different reasons for existing with each segment, and whose connective spirit lays somewhere other than in the nameable. The sum total is as allusive as each individual component seem to be, and I was drawn to the film’s lucid, spare tension between things, whether between oneself (like the person's hands and the solo-sung, first person mantras) or between others (tennis matches and the flag). I can honestly say I really don’t understand either what it “meant” or what it was “doing,” but often that is one of the rarest and greatest pleasures of art, isn’t it Fernando?
I forgot to mention a film in my last letter to you that I liked a great deal, and I'd be amiss to not bring it up: the new short from a poet filmmaker from Poland, Wojciech Bąkowski, whose work always seems that of a madman. A director of films I would never, ever describe as something I am attracted to or find appealing, ever since seeing his 2012 semi-animated what's-it Dry Standpipe—in retrospect, one of the great avant-garde films of the 2010s, I think—and following up with an extensive profile in Oberhausen in 2014, I consistently find his short films baffling, transfixing, and of pin-point precision. Part of this latter aspect I think comes from his other work as a poet. The words this man choses have a spare, condensed quality that speaks volumes, and read out loud in his droll, introspective and morose tone of voice make for an aural experience that feels like the uncanny combination of both off-the-cuff ruminations and considerations pushed to their deepest characterization. His film at TIFF, titled with typically upfront clarity and self-deprecation Analysis of Emotions and Vexations, is a return to his earlier hand drawn animations, before he moved to the fruitfully awkward irreality of bad computer graphics. This film is in fact barely animated, consisting of charcoal drawings of tableaux that feature minor animated sections or revisions. Bąkowski in voiceover describes these only somewhat: that is, the quietly trembling drawings seem to partially illustrate his comments—describing an anecdote, a mindstate, a memory. But also fail at this task; his words don’t fully explain the images, nor the images fully elucidate his commentary, which often sounds like the responses a poet might give his psychoanalyst about urban frustrations and worries, responses deeply honed to diamond-hardness. It’s another strangely uncategorizable work by this challenging and idiosyncratic artist, and I loved every minute of it.
I was worried for a 36 hour period, Fernando, that I wouldn’t have enough to report to you; mid-way through the festival, film after film seemed like torpid duds, examples of such flagrantly dull averageness even mentioning the movies seems to grant them a potency of effect unwarranted. But, as the festival gauntlet inevitably does, my stumbled experience recovered grandly, and I assuredly have even more tantalizing films to tell you about next.
Warmly,
Danny

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