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TIFF 2016. Correspondences #6

A quartet of puzzling films at the film festival by Walter Hill, Werner Herzog, Hong Sang-soo, and Angela Schanelec.
Yourself and Yours
Dear Fern,
Well, you certainly picked a strange day of cinema! I can't say I envy such a mix. Still, I also saw Walter Hill’s thoroughly ridiculous and enjoyable (re)Assignment, pleasing for this old school director’s brisk genre shorthand, extravagant tongue-in-cheek (Sigourney Weaver plays her mad doctor role as a butch Hannibal Lecter), and the unexpectedly detailed performance by Caitlin Gerard as Michelle Rodriguez’s girlfriend. And I cannot deny the force of the scene when Rodriguez’s killer, once a man, wakes up from his captive surgery and takes a first look at his nude female body: one of the most extraordinary scenes in cinema this year.
Believe it or not, Werner Herzog’s Salt and Fire is an even more ungainly and confusing, though equally amusing film. You suggest, Fern, that the first half of the film mimics an eco-thriller so it may transform into something more metaphysical. But I am not actually sure this film isn’t entirely a comedy through and through. With its arch-stilted dialog, forever delaying the actual plot as kidnap mastermind Michael Shannon unhurriedly tours bioscientist Veronica Ferres around his compound in Unnamed Latin American Country, conversing on the perspectives of reality, and containing plenteous jokes about the supposedly wheelchair bound “brain” behind the plot (played to perfection by theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss), Salt and Fire seems intentionally torpid and generally vague about what's at stake in the supposed earthly catastrophe that Shannon oversaw and Ferres is coming to study.
You must admit, this film is consistent in what it is trying to do—whatever that may be! A further nuance is that despite being peppered with known actors, the film has a threadbare ease to it that feels like Herzog brought a handful of cast members along with his usually documentary crew to Bolivia (where it is shot) and improvised something on the spot. There is precisely one constructed set in the film, the rest of which feels like a barely-false drama filmed like a documentary. With Emmanuel Maignan's Saint Francis of Paoloa—a mise en abyme, anamorphic mural in Rome—referenced several times and the film's oddly restrained, transformative final act set on immense salt lake (evidence of the natural devastation caused by humans in the area), I have to wonder what exactly Salt and Fire is truly after. Perhaps a fiction so absurd that when looked at askew it is in fact a disturbing documentary?
And speaking of favorite surrealists, it was a bit nail biting (for me at least) to see if South Korea’s droll satirist of South gender relationships, Hong Sang-soo, was going to premiere a new film this year. He won the Golden Leopard in Locarno last year with one of his most acclaimed films, Right Now, Wrong Then, and has been making a new film (or two) nearly each year for a decade. Sweet relief: Here is the marvelously titled Yourself and Yours at Toronto.
If we dare divide this great director’s filmography, which is (in)famously consistent but hardly repetitious, it would’t be between major and minor films—who are we to judge?—but rather films with bigger and smaller conceptual bases. Yourself and Yours, like the excellent miniature Oki's Movie, is the latter, which may explain, if anyone puts weight in the prestige of festival selection committees, why this film is unusually premiering at Toronto and not in a juried competition elsewhere. Ultimately, I don’t care: it’s another excellent film by Hong, at once harsh and hilarious, that squirms with delightful discomfort around a wonderfully perverse premise.
It opens with a visit to a painter (Kim Joo-hyuck) by a friend who tells him heard from their friends that his girlfriend Minjung (Lee You-young) was spotted getting wasted and starting a fight the other day. Incensed because she had promised to stop drinking so much (“just five drinks” is their agreed limit) and he was thinking of marriage, the painter confronts Minjung in a scene of horrible emotional beratement, refuses to believe her protests, sides with his friend’s gossip—and they break up. And now the wrinkle: she, or a woman who looks just like her, is recognized by another man at a cafe as Minjung, but she says she’s not her—she’s her twin. These two strike up a relationship while the painter wanders despondent (and hilariously pathetically hobbled with a broken ankle) and pines for his love—if only he could believe her!
Around this woman—or at least her body—more mis-recognitions occur, and we’re never quite sure if it’s always Minjung putting everyone on, there really is a twin, or there’s some uncanny metaphysical option. Hong is, after all, an heir to Buñuel (this story referencing That Obscure Object of Desire). With his twinning Minjung and a story that may or may not fold into itself, Hong skewers how men treat and fantasize about women by disrupting and re-configuring the reality around his protagonists so that the everyday—and Hong’s movies always look resolutely banal—is ultimately untrustworthy. Only, they don’t realize that, we do: we observe these uncanny repetitions, the ironic arguments, the playful apparitions, and see that they—and perhaps we, too—move through a world desiring so much for upright behavior, harmony and happiness that we’re unhappy to appreciate the subtle strangeness this desire creates. In Yourself and Yours, Hong casts doubts on personhood itself: a sarcastic young woman, dismissive of the painter’s woe, posits that we’re all really the same, it's just that we see each other differently. So is Minjung one, two, many...all? Are these men, some of which are really unpleasant in behavior (the painter is truly brutal in his first accusations, and two other men pursue the Munjun-a-like with no awareness of their creepy insistence) just seeing what they want to see? At the seamstress shop Minjung works at, we see a mannequin modeling a dress, all body and no head. The next time it appears, the shop’s owner removes the arms and starts taking even this blank vessel apart.
Hong Sang-soo is often treated as a “puzzle filmmaker,” where his playful proclivity for repetition, inversions, mirrored and refracted storytelling invites precise observation in order to “solve” how its world works. For the most part, I don’t think he’s working quite so schematically (certainly not so in Yourself and Yours) and that this pursuit robs his offhand surrealism of both its charm and disturbance. There’s another unsolvable but equally rewarding film here at Toronto, too. Slowly accreting perplexed but beguiled word of mouth since its under-the-radar premiere at the Locarno Film Festival in August, German director Angela Schanelec’s The Dreamed Path is an immaculately composed and constructed drama of mysteriously recurrent discontent. Beginning in an instantly enthralling series of isolated images that come together to reveal a bohemian couple hiking and busking in Greece in the early 1980s, the woman is quickly discarded by the story and we follow the man as he travels home to England after learning his mother is gravely ill. The film seems to re-form around him, his shabby destitution—he reveals himself a drug addict—his nearly blind father, and their grief over the mother. But yet again the film’s narrative proceeds to skip over time, jump in space, and divert with rubbernecked angularity; the man is left behind, the woman is picked up in 1989—Europe’s suggested movement towards unity and the dissolution of East Germany are pinpoints that help ground where we are and when—now a mother (and perhaps her ex- is the father) about to move to Berlin. And then we jump again, now to the present and in Germany’s capital and re-focused on a new woman, an actress playing a policewoman, whose marriage is quietly collapsing and who, like the ex-bohemian busker, seems to be transmitting something of her wobbly existential state to her child, who fends it off with generosity and spirit.
Made of opaque tendrils of story paradoxically suggested through the utmost of precision (and prettiness) in framing spaces and her actors—each of whom deliver highly measured and mannered performances akin to those found in films by Robert Bresson—Schanelec adroitly and suggestively splits couples, splits people, splits time and space like the most subtle of atom-smashers, sending each off into the world to live and change and split again under the world’s unseen pressures. Having seen the film twice and exited the darkness even more confounded the second time, The Dreamed Path seems to suggest that it’s a puzzle film. But once the “path” diverts and we jump again, it is clear there is no “solution” because it’s not presenting a puzzle at all, but rather envisioning the strangeness of our journey through time, moored and cast free by friendships, loves, family, nation, politics, desire and death.

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