Post-Festival Report 2011, Part 3:
Still Lives

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
Further dispatches from the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Repetition and longueur characterised a number of very strong (some great) films at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival, few more so than painter, poet, and novelist Li Hongqi’s absurdist satire, Winter Vacation.

Set in a grim locale in the northern provinces of China (in a town defined by the look and feel of socialist miserabilism) over the final days of the winter school break, the film centres on a handful of disaffected friends grappling with boredom, their tenuous prospects, and what passes for meaning in an environment that screams hopeless disenfranchisement. Mostly composed of static ‘one scene one shot’ sequences with occasional inter-scene editing (I can’t recall a single camera movement, although the odd one may have sneaked by), the minimalist formalism of Li’s deliberate and artfully mundane framing enhances the deadpan tone of his film. Some may find it laboured and self-conscious, but Li isn’t going for naturalism here, and he’s not especially concerned about audience identification either.

Winter Vacation is a socio-political satire that is at once dryly amusing and achingly poignant, typified in a scene where a young couple discuss their future: she, an academic failure willing to put romance aside to improve her grades; he, disillusioned but hoping to find meaning through procreation. Zhongxin (a cute, puffy cheeked four-year-old boy) is frequently reminded to do what he’s told lest he be “kicked in the butt.” A teenager stoically takes repeated slaps to the face from another boy trying to wring every dollar out of him. A woman strips away the outer leaves of a cabbage (almost half the vegetable) before mercilessly haggling over the price with the impoverished street-vendor. She then gathers the discarded leaves and takes them with her. While these scenes are wry comments on life in a dramatically changing China, they have much to say to (and about) all of us, regardless of our social or financial circumstances.

Throughout the film, intermittent volleys of distant explosions can be heard: fireworks perhaps, or gunfire, or sounds from dockyards, quarries, refineries or building sites. These sounds are never explained or directly referred to, but either way, their ominous overtones do not bode well for Li’s young protagonists. Ultra-downbeat musical interludes (composed and performed by Zuoxiao Zuzhou and The Top Floor Circus) accompany high-angle long-shots of the treeless township as it settles into successive somnolent evenings (a device used to separate each act of the film). The music evokes a near comatose state of benumbed incomprehension, as damningly critical (if not more so) as any of Li’s rhetorical images, and suggesting a very different take on the notion of the ‘sleeping giant’. Any hint of a nation united in a common struggle (marching with confidence towards a shared socialist utopia) is resolutely refuted. Indeed, the film’s ironic title hints at crushing stasis: hibernation, inactivity, dormancy, biding time, hovering between one state and another, frozen in a kind of limbo. In this respect, Winter Vacation has thematic parallels with the films of Jia Zhang-ke.

One can sense anger at the core of Winter Vacation, particularly in the final shot of a classroom of jaundiced high-school children over which thrashing music belts out from the hitherto subdued soundtrack. Sadly, the Academy Theatre decided to turn this music down, presumably to make it more palatable. While they were no doubt being thoughtful, they must have confused the festival audience with a… goodness knows what… an Eat Pray Love crowd perhaps. Or perhaps they were mindful of their shitty sound system, which made the music sound even nastier than intended. No matter, Li’s point was made, even if it was a little heavy-handed. So too was the previous scene, in which a teacher deviates from the prepared lesson (on “how to be a useful person in society”) to harangue the class about how stupid people are to believe the smokescreens put up to disguise specious systems and ideologies. “You think you are souls of the universe,” he says, “…but you know nothing. Libraries only increase human stupidity and arrogance.” Of course, it’s the two pre-schoolers (Zhongxin and his girlfriend) who see beyond the constricted (compromised, corrupted, self-serving, deluded, fearful, resigned) limitations of, well, everyone. They talk about going to a place where they can be “orphans,” a comment that evinces perception and disillusion well beyond their years, the implications of which have been mirrored in the lives of every character from the opening shot. While Winter Vacation may not have wide appeal (and even those who appreciate it may not place it at the very top of their ‘best of the festival’ list), it is nevertheless a solid, serious minded work from a talented filmmaker.

In less capable hands, Michael could have been a torturously unpleasant experience, but writer-director Markus Schleinzer handles his potentially contentious subject matter with great judgement and sensitivity. The time spent working on (and obviously giving much consideration to) the films of Michael Haneke has served him well. The work of Ulrich Seidl is another touchstone, as are some of the Berlin School films, such as Valeska Grisebach’s excellent Longing (2006), with which Michael shares a similarly understated reserve. Schleinzer depicts the neatly ordered world of his titular protagonist with a matter-of-fact, quietly unsettling sense of everyday dysfunctionality. Michael is an unremarkable office worker, an unassuming man who avoids relationships with co-workers and family alike. But in the underground basement of his equally unremarkable suburban home, 10-year-old Wolfgang is locked in a sound-proofed, windowless room, abducted and held captive in order to satisfy Michael’s various needs (subtly implied, never shown).

While for much of the film we anticipate Wolfgang’s imminent escape (willing him to pick up the hammer or bolt for the door), Schleinzer gives us plenty of opportunity to consider the societal conditions that foster the Michaels of this world. Of course, there are no pat answers, and the perceptions that arise from the film make it clear that Michael is not really about paedophilia—the story is only one of many potential expressions of societal dysfunction. In this respect, Michael can be seen as a reiteration of thematic threads that go back to the work of Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet, particularly their superb Not reconciled (1965), in which they assert that German fascism did not begin and end with the rise and fall of Nazism. The seeds were sewn long before, and still flourish today. This is a central theme in the work of Haneke and Seidl too, and like them, Schleinzer suggests that culpability is not only shared by society, but perpetuated (if not tacitly condoned) through guilt and denial, and the frequently well-meaning (but often not) intentions and precepts of social authorities such as the church, councils, and corporations. And then, of course, there is apathy.

I might have expected a bit much from Austrian filmmaker Karl Markovics’s Breathing, particularly in light of Michael and the work of Haneke, Seidl, et al., and while it doesn’t exactly stand shoulder to shoulder with such heavy-weights, it definitely has its moments. Thomas Schubert is particularly impressive in the lead role, a performance that could easily slot into a more rigorous (Haneke-like) film. Breathing may be Austrian, but with the score matching the footsteps of characters, you know you’re not in Seidl country. Nevertheless, the film is much better than these comments suggest. Perceptively observed and shot in a visually sophisticated but undemonstrable style, this empathetic study of an isolated and damaged individual striving to make the best of the cards dealt him is a fine debut—even if it is perhaps a little safe.

I most certainly expected more from Tran Anh Hung than the contrived (though undeniably artful) piece of adolescent romantic masochism that was (or so it seemed to me) Norwegian Wood. I guess I’m in the wrong demographic for this film, but at nearly 50-years-old, I would have thought Tran was too. But Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000) was some years ago, and (on reflection) Tran has tended to veer towards overtly attractive, perhaps even superficial surfaces. While his new film is (by all accounts) faithful to Haruki Murakami’s widely-praised novel, it was frustratingly hollow in my view, too concerned with beautiful images of pretty people in precisely designed settings, suffering the sweet melancholia of self-absorbed existential crises. However, I got an unexpected (and surely unintentional) laugh when the death of one character is revealed in a slow pan that comes to rest on a pair of legs dangling from a tree. What a hoot!

If Tran had followed the structure of the novel by setting the film within the retrospective recollections of the now older central character (Toru), and giving the Japanese student protests of the ’60s more thematic weight, Norwegian Wood might have had a little more meat on its bones. Admittedly, the protests were used to suggest that Toru is oblivious to matters of political conscience, but Tran could have taken this further to explore ideas relating to notions of choice—choosing or not choosing, being chosen, or having no choice at all. Instead, the film was a rather vain 130-minute slog in the company of equally vain characters, to say nothing of the rather dated sexual dynamics. Some might argue that on this level the film reflects the times in which it is set, but Norwegian Wood seems to purport the notion that the female characters (irresistibly attracted to Toru) are defined by (and must suffer as a consequence of) their relationship to the central male protagonist. And yet, I’m sure many viewers will see the film as a gorgeous, sensuous, poignant meditation on love and loss. Who knows, perhaps this is the perfect movie to watch with a special friend on a winter’s evening curled up in front of the fire, as comfy and beguiling as an angora pullover.

My decision to go to Oliver Hermanus’s Beauty (Skoonheid) was a last minute impulse. I was wary of the film given the intimations in the festival booklet of a “ferocious … human cannonball ripping through walls,” which primed me to expect that the wood-processing plant owned by the central protagonist, Francois (a concentrated and very controlled performance by Charlie Keegan) might take the film to Fargo-style extremes. I was relieved to find that Hermanus and co-writer Didier Costet had much more serious fish to fry. This cinematically sophisticated film examines the inner turmoil of an emotionally isolated, conflicted man, unaware that he is on a journey of devastating self-discovery (revealed with wordless perfection in the penultimate scene). A broad political reading could be extrapolated in which Francois could be seen as a signifier for entrenched bigotry, prejudice and intransigence, but the implications of Beauty are more broadly universal. While he is portrayed with restraint and understanding (perhaps even compassion), the final image of Francois driving down a long spiral parking building exit (descending steadily into darkness) brought the film to an implicitly ominous conclusion. Impressively controlled, intelligent and perceptive, Beauty is well worth the ticket price.

Les frères Dardenne certainly know how to cast their films. The Kid with a Bike features the debut of another superb young actor. Thomas Doret plays Cyril (the troubled, fiercely resilient kid with a bike) with impressive energy and veracity. While connections with Robert Bresson are still apparent, they are less overt. This is not the riff on Mouchette I thought it was going to be at one point, in the way that Rosetta was, or as Pickpocket was an influence on L’Enfant. The Kid with a Bike has more in common with the Dardennes’ first feature, La Promesse (1996), an equally unblinking and compassionate study of a young boy (interestingly, the film debut of Dardenne regular, Jérémie Renier, who here plays Cyril’s father) caught up in a people-smuggling ring. Some will also notice parallels with the neo-realism of Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, and early Ken Loach (notably Kes). While I don’t wish to imply that this is one of the Dardennes’ lesser works, it seemed to be an attempt to reach a broader audience. This is partly evinced by the subject matter and the extent to which the viewer is encouraged to identify with the central characters, but also in the use of music, which one doesn’t usually equate with the Dardennes. The critical consensus seems to be that this is a return to form after the supposedly less successful Lorna’s Silence, but I’m not sure if I agree that their previous film was a lesser effort, or that this (good though it is) is an improvement. However, one thing is certain—when it comes to handling potentially sensational subject-matter, the Dardennes show once again that they are masters at eschewing sentimentality and emotional pleading, and keeping their characters (and the viewer) wholly grounded.

While a casual likeness to the Berlin School may be discernable in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s stylish Elena, Hitchcock overtones are also discernable in this sombre, economical, noir-tinged study of moral compromise and socio-political discontent. The film is a riff on classic The Postman Always Rings Twice machinations, and as such, it’s considerably more successful than Christian Petzold’s disappointing Jericow (NZIFF 2009) on virtually every level: conception, execution, integration of socio-political themes, cinematic formalism, etc. Even the music of Philip Glass is very effective. I don’t wish to seem dismissive, but his scores often feel imposed on a film in my view, rarely as expertly integrated as the score for Elena. Ostensibly a tale about a late middle-aged woman forced to choose between her second husband (a wealthy and much older businessman) and her wastrel son (and his dead-loss family), the film can be read as a damning commentary on present-day Russia. Stylish visual storytelling, excellent performances (notably from Nadezhda Markina in the title role), and beautifully designed, Elena is a class act from one of Russia’s finest contemporary directors.

I can’t add much to either of the fine appraisals by Tim Wong and Brannavan Gnanalingam of Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, except to say that it is a hypnotic piece of cinema. The film can’t accurately be described as a documentary, not just because nearly all of the footage was originally used to support a fiction (subtly implied by the film’s title), but because Ujica had no intention of explaining or overtly critiquing his subject. One doesn’t come away with a head full of facts or information beyond that which one’s perceptive facility discerns. As Tim points out, there is no voice-over, no dates, places, names, on-screen text or other contextualising information. You bring to the film what you know, and what you don’t know will largely remain so. Instead, the film operates on the level of giving someone the latitude to hang themselves with their own words (or more pertinently, their own images), but the implications go well beyond Ceausescu himself. As Brannavan suggests, the way that assembled images such as these are read and understood is largely dependent on context. But the film ultimately stands apart from most documentaries in that the appreciation of the images (their essential aesthetic quality) is central to Ujica’s intentions. Whatever you know (or don’t know) about Ceausescu, or whatever could be overtly imparted through narration or text isn’t the point. “Not knowing” is a statement in itself. It’s also a comment on the persuasive nature of documentary, which Ujica resolutely refuses to engage in. Instead, he emphasises (and over three hours luxuriates in) the aesthetic pleasure of cinema, something that every film discussed here had to offer in glorious abundance, and what more could a cinephile want?

The New Zealand International Film Festival 2011 continues throughout the country until November. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.