Critical Roundup #1:
Cannes winners at NZIFF

FILM, Film Festivals
In the first in a series of “critical roundups” looking at New Zealand International Film Festival highlights our writers have previously covered abroad, we revisit Brannavan Gnanalingam’s coverage of the following prizewinners at the Festival de Cannes: Like Father, Like Son (Jury Prize), A Touch of Sin (Best Screenplay), The Past (Best Actress).

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest miniature family drama, Like Father, Like Son, is further proof that he’s heir to the contemplative if pointed tradition of Yasujiro Ozu. Although an oft-used and all-too-easy comparison to make, this new film is analogous in its empathy, emphasis on small moments (or tragedies) within families, and focus on the resignation of life. Much like Ozu, there’s also gentle social commentary, with issues of class, work, gender roles, and parenting subtly woven in.

Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a workaholic with a swanky apartment and a six-year-old son. Inexplicably, he and his wife discover that their son was accidentally switched at birth. They then have to decide whether to keep their “son” or reclaim their “blood line”. Typical for Kore-eda is the old-fashioned, low-key approach through which their story is told, only one that comes with a decent emotional wallop.

The protagonists are initially setup one-dimensionally. It is only as the film progresses that Kore-eda (as usual) reveals depth to his characters. The matriarchs of the two families form the real conscience throughout, even though the character journey is that of Ryota. There is also humour, recurring symbolism (trains, of course!), and subtle character observations; little asides that cumulate into something quite powerful. The rhythm is exquisite, and Kore-eda’s real skill in subtext and suppressed emotions is once again to the fore. And while the film is perhaps a tad overlong, it is beautifully observed and played out. Read More

Jia Zhangke’s new film, A Touch of Sin, takes three real-life murders and one suicide, fictionalises the background events, and then forms one of the most incendiary pieces of political cinema I can think of. Jia’s usual thematic concerns form the backdrop: the rapid modernising of contemporary China, the people left behind in the rush towards the future, communal vs. individual motivations, and the physical transformations of cityscapes and landscapes. Only this time, Jia’s focus is explicitly on the individuals who don’t quite fit into the new world of wealth inequality, rampant capitalism under the guise by communist practices, corruption, job insecurity, misogyny—or at the very least, the body being subsumed into the new capitalist social relations—and anomie. Atomised individuals struggling to cope within a transient and violent world. Sounds heavy, but it’s brilliant stuff.

Jia’s eye remains as strong as ever. The four stories allow him to concentrate on different visual symbols—each, for example, has alternating landscapes (mountains, rivers, forests, and sea), alternating cityscapes (the cities become progressively modernised as the stories shift location), and alternating modes of transport in focus. Many of the characters are mobile. The first story largely takes place in the one village, while the last features a young man travelling from province to province in search of a fulfilling job. Jia offers an incredibly vast and complex set of contrasting images to convey the modern China. In a way the country is indescribable and slippery, but in many other ways, it’s a very specific environment in which its citizens are forced to interact.

Where Jia may get himself into trouble is through the use of wuxia and other traditional Chinese artistic tropes to tell the story. The title itself is a clear homage to the granddaddy of the wuxia films, A Touch of Zen. Wuxia essentially relies on a strong moral code within a chaotic and anarchic world. As one of the most popular genres in China and elsewhere, it frequently features people forced to commit violence in order to “save” society. Jia makes an explicit link between his murderers and the wuxia heroes through costuming, animal symbols (tigers, snakes), and mise-en-scène. In other words: violence is sometimes necessary. And when the victims in the film are Communist officials, town leaders, successful businessmen, or those cruel to animals, it’s hard not to gulp at how this might be read.

Genres likes wuxia, and in America, Westerns, worked because they allowed outsiders with a strongly identifiable moral code to hold the powerful to account. However, these were always set in the past, and as a result, were less dangerous. Such an explicit modern setting, as in this film, will perhaps be interpreted in far more provocative ways. A more gentle reading of the film is to suggest that Jia is exploring the inevitability of violence, the recurring brutality throughout history, the impulses that cause victims to victimise, and the clash between impotence and action. And of course, despite its explicit Chinese setting, it would be ridiculous to think that the film’s concerns with the downtrodden don’t have a resonance for those on the outside. A Touch of Sin is nothing short of masterful, and further proof that Jia is without doubt one of the best directors working today. Read More

In Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to France from Iran to finalise his divorce with Marie (Bérénice Bejo). He agitates the various tensions in Marie’s new life. He essentially plays the role of the reoccurring God figure in Kieslowski’s films—Kieslowski being an obvious reference point for Farhadi’s work. The opening scene sets the tone: Marie reverses the car in pouring rain after picking Ahmad up from the airport. She almost has a crash. From this—and the opening credit’s windscreen wiping motif—Farhadi explores guilt, obfuscation or suppression of the past, and the difficulty of moving forward. He also offers a subtle view of being an expat in another country—Ahmad doesn’t belong in France, but it’s also not clear if he belongs in Iran.

With the stratospheric expectations heaped on The Past in mind, its scripting certainly isn’t as tight or emotionally taut as Farhadi’s major success, A Separation. At times, the bubbling melodrama threatens to cross over into unconvincing territory, and Farhadi could have put more trust in ellipsis rather than trying to explain every single detail. His control of actors, though, maintains an emotionally engaging throughline. Boy, does Farhadi know how to direct actors. The cast is uniformly brilliant: Bejo, Tahar Rahim (as Marie’s boyfriend Samir), and in particular, Elyes Aguid as Samir’s son, are exceptional. The space Farhadi gives the actors—he’s not afraid of silence, for instance—results in some bravura scenes (both the subway scene and the children present scene really stand out). Farhadi also utilises understated but compelling imagery. Like A Separation, he looks at people who are unable to confront their own failings, and instead find easy/other targets to blame. Frequently, it’s also the children who pierce into the adults’ suppressed emotions. Farhadi’s strengths, his empathy for his characters and his insistence on shining light on the grey areas of life, suggest that he is fast becoming one of contemporary cinema’s most perceptive portrayers of everyday life. Read More

See ‘The Cannes List’ for a full round down of In Competition and Out of Competition films scheduled to screen here in July and August. For a thorough overview of this year’s Festival de Cannes, read Brannavan’s Postcards from Cannes.
The New Zealand International Film Festival 2013 opens in Auckland on July 18, Wellington on July 26, Christchurch on August 1, Dunedin on August 8, and tours the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.