At the New Zealand International Film Festival, it was a banner year for auteurs and their cinephile constituency.
Any year that gives us a new Bruno Dumont, a trilogy of Ulrich Seidl films, and for the first time, a Lav Diaz masterpiece, is a good year. The box office for these films will tell a different story, but then when hasn’t the lonely cinephile been subsidised by the crowd? More than ever at the New Zealand International Film Festival, the big-ticket movies underwrite the smaller ones, meaning valued auteurs like Hong Sang-soo and Manoel de Oliveira still get their due despite lackluster turn outs. The persisting question is whether or not the festival, in lieu of a major sponsor, can comfortably break even on this finely balanced business model, and if these neglected masters will be the first to go in the event that the books slip into the red. The festival hardcore like to bemoan the lack of interest in such fare as Gebo and the Shadow—which, just quietly, is among the best films I’ve seen this year, and in its exquisite capture of candlelight through darkness, is a flickering beacon for the fading 35mm format—but it is the day when punters stop filling the cinema for Much Ado About Nothing, Behind the Candelabra, and other centrepieces, that should have us truly worried for the ongoing boldness and diversity of programming.
If Gebo and the Shadow was underseen, Three Sisters was over attended insofar as the wrong audience showed up. In a classic case of ‘know your auteur’, the attrition rate (not to mention, the unacceptable cell phone usage) at the screening I was present at was the highest I witnessed all festival. Wang Bing, a pure documentarian committed to searing, long-form portraits of workers entrenched in rural and industrial China, zeroes in on a trio of motherless siblings living in a remote village in Yunnan province with the rigour and intensity of his most revered works: chiefly, West of the Tracks (2003), a three-part, nine-hour elegy for factory towns in Northeast China, and Crude Oil (2008), a real-time, fourteen-hour chronicle of labourers at work. Compared to those, Three Sisters is a mere anecdote in terms of its duration (153 minutes), and yet it comes at an important time when other key films documenting China’s social and economic evolution from the shoulder of the everyday worker—such as the widely released Up the Yangtze and Last Train Home alongside Jia Zhang-ke’s cine-literate docu-fiction narratives—are increasingly urban-centric in their focus. In Wang’s uncompromising film, the ghosts of socialism linger in the damp haze of the sisters’ impoverished rural existence, in which the eldest is left behind to tend to the livestock and potato crop while her father migrates to the city in search of a better-paying job. There are glimmers of hope in the most unexpected things, but also a poignant awareness of the banality and adversity of life.
While only two Chinese films featured in this year’s festival, both were exceptional. Jia Zhang-ke’s latest, A Touch of Sin, might strike some as an abrupt, stylistic departure—with bursts of gunplay, graphic violence, and occasional pyrotechnics, it is certainly more of a ‘movie’ than we’re used to seeing from the mainland auteur—but in terms of marking a new chapter in his forward-thinking career, it makes absolute sense. Beginning with a series of realist, incognito dramas about Chinese youth located in the past and present (Xiao We, Platform, Unknown Pleasures), followed by a sustained period of creative digital features and shorts merging fiction and imagination (The World through to I Wish I Knew), Jia’s new film, executed with consummate ease, is a crisp medley of four moral tales based on real life incidents of desperation. The manner in which Jia links these stories and their contexts is, on the surface at least, elementary, but consumed as a whole, is startlingly sophisticated. Particularly impressive is the film’s tapestry of opera, genre cinema, and fraught history, woven through a narrative that is at once acutely political and inherently wise in its essaying on corruption, economics, and globalisation in modern China. The richness of understanding remains unabated.
It’s incredibly satisfying to watch a director you’ve followed for some time pull off a difficult act like A Touch of Sin, a film that handles the essence of genre as expertly as it does the blend of cold facts and artistic license. Although its title acknowledges King Hu’s seminal A Touch of Zen, Jia’s film maintains a healthy distance from obvious reference points; indeed, there are no martial arts sequences or flying swordsman. Instead, motifs, cultural symbols, and echoes of anti-heroic folklore connect the film to a history of violence in which wuxia is simply one conduit among many. I raise this point about referencing the past, because what is a smart and eloquent experiment in one filmmaker’s hands is just as easily a glib exercise in another’s. I have a lot of time for Noah Baumbach, and in keeping with the Woody Allen-esque spirit of his new film, Frances Ha, I especially like the earlier, bitter ones—Margot at the Wedding being his most underrated feature of the lot. Of course, you would think that it would be enough to evoke Allen’s black-and-white phase by photographing New York in lush, Gordon Willis-esque monochrome, and that the spunk of the Nouvelle Vague (both the original ’60s incarnation, and its so-called second-coming in the form of Leos Carax and co.) was evident in the film’s upbeat editing, playful physicality, and self-conscious bohemian milieu. (How telling that Frances’s best friend comments: “This apartment [read: film] is very aware of itself.”) Then again, for Baumbach, who has a kid named ‘Rohmer’ (with ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, a superb actress now struggling for significant work as most of her middle-aged contemporaries appear to be), suggestion is too subtle an art.
While it might seem unfair to write off a film based on one scene, Baumbach’s choice of David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’ to score Frances’s improvised scamper down the sidewalk is simply too on the nose; a tipping point, not a tribute as intended. Direct film references can be fun, and Mauvais Sang is as good a movie as any to pay homage to, but when it comes after the appropriation of Georges Delerue’s theme to Truffaut’s A Gorgeous Girl Like Me, and with the French New Wave sensibility already in plain view, there’s something ultimately pedestrian about the moment, one that’s deflating in its borderline pastiche. Frances Ha certainly doesn’t earn its vitality because of this lip service, and it subsequently pales in comparison to a film like Computer Chess, which exudes originality despite a surreal undercurrent of nostalgia, or a postmodern classic like Chungking Express, which still smells fresh after all these years despite itself being a New Wave throwback. There are other times when Baumbach gets it right—the Paris sequence cut to ‘Every 1’s a Winner’ is inspired—and yet when he’s not arranging episodes in neat packages, he has much less of a stake in the film than its star and co-writer, Greta Gerwig. In stark contrast to her role in the stilted single-girl-in-Manhattan indie Lola Versus, Gerwig blossoms through her ownership of the material, which in its lust for life and proud asexuality, dances to a different beat than Lena Dunham’s Girls, if not the mumblecore legacy it conclusively breaks away from (fast-talking and zany, the script channels the female-dominated screwball comedies of yesteryear). Her personality is all over the film—a good argument for the actress as auteur—and is a major saving grace.
Gerwig often refers to herself as ‘undateable’ in Frances Ha, which by the film’s end, has become a byword for individualism and independence—not a slur on being single and alone, as one might assume. ‘Undateable’ Shane Carruth, an autonomous, multi-hyphenate filmmaker, has only completed two features to date: Primer in 2004, with Upstream Color coming nearly a decade later. Despite the slow turnaround, he has earned status as an auteur on account of his singularity of vision and ingenuity of practice. Visually and sonically, Upstream Color is an undeniably immersive film, taking the popularised look and texture of cinematography produced on a low-budget DSLR rig to the nth degree. Thematically, make of it what you will. Formally, however, the film represents something of a strained attempt at organic process, at shooting and assembling through intuition, and somehow heightening our experience of the amnesia at the heart of the story, which revolves around the bond between a man (Carruth) and a woman (Amy Seimetz) who share an undiscovered history linked to a behavioral control drug administered against their will.
What’s problematic about Carruth’s editing strategy is that his elliptical construction feels constantly riveted to the architecture of plot. Whereas a true master of the form, Claire Denis, is effortless in her awareness of negative space and furtive moments—the poetics of time, space, and motion as a fluid whole—Carruth pushes and pulls his images as if to compulsively rearrange them around the details of what’s occurring at any given time. Interestingly, Carruth has already made a film that to some extent approaches what makes Denis a great practitioner of the elliptical art: Primer being a film that is elusive on first impression, but on closer inspection, is quite clearly delineated in the way Denis’s storylines are. (Even a film like The Intruder, which verges on an out-of-body experience, is lucid in terms of its A-to-B trajectory.) With Upstream Color, I get that Carruth is feeling out the mystery in the way that he has chosen to piece things together, and is transferring that unsettled yet tactile sense of touch—as if one’s sight has been impaired—to the viewer. Still, because he is so conscious of creating an enigma, the mise en scène seems unnecessarily complicated, designed to withhold information rather than withdraw us from the standard vantage point of a conventional film narrative.
To cite an example of a film that takes a step back as opposed to plunging in headfirst, Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love comes to mind. The art cinema modus operandi remains the same—to produce a film that brings the audience out of their seats, and doesn’t pander to their comforts and needs—however the similarities in practice end there. Kiarostami’s film is brilliant precisely because of its clarity: the characters project inward and the world exists within a defined cinematic space, and yet for us, the walls are transparent, and we complete the picture and find our own meanings through this opening. Crucially, Kiarostami gives the audience room to intervene. Conversely, I can’t shake the notion that Carruth has confused intervention with running interference. There’s no denying that his film invites grand theories and interpretations, but it is not a porous cinematic experience in the vein of The Tree of Life, a film Carruth seems vaguely influenced by. (Malick’s latest, To the Wonder, is attractive and symphonic, and yet utterly devoid of profundity—a big image screensaver.) In Upstream Color, everything is either guarded, filtered, or intercepted, and it is so heavy in extreme close-ups—faces, objects, body parts, organisms, all enveloped in shallow focus—that our perspective is, by default, narrow and murky. It’s a kind of blind faith that I don’t believe in, even though many others do. By virtue of the film’s inspiring independence, both in production and distribution, it absolutely deserves a following. As for the cult surrounding its ‘greatness’, I’m not so sure.
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A film that genuinely pushed the envelope this year was Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s visceral documentary Leviathan. As Jacob Powell has observed, its violent flow of imagery, achieved by positioning miniature GoPro cameras both onboard and overboard a commercial fishing vessel, is more akin to a Stan Brakhage film than anything remotely informational or televisual (as in National Geographic’s Deadlist Catch, which a crew member ironically watches in an exhausted daze during one the film’s few ‘dry’ scenes). It’s easily the purest experimental feature screened at the festival in some time, and has the added impact of leaving a physical mark on every viewer to encounter it: for some, sea sickness is inevitable; for others, the sight of mutilated fish will be enough to induce nausea. For me, the constant sound and collision of water, particularly in sequences where the camera is being thrashed over and under the ocean, comes unbearable close to what I imagine it must feel like to be drowned or waterboarded.
Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux also generated a powerful wavelength. Nothing to do with it being shot through the bottom of a Coke bottle, mind you; its roaming wide-angle camera and ground-level proximity to nature and the elements (or most memorably, the bottom of a ruck) the basis for some potent and varied imagery. It’s an expressly personal vision that gets under the skin. In the simplest terms, it’s this year’s Uncle Boonmee. (Reygadas’s longtime producer, Jaime Romandia, was also behind Heli, a briefly shocking, wholly compassionate tale of systemic evil, for which Amat Escalante picked up Best Director at Cannes; and Sebastian Hofmann’s Halley, one of the strongest films I’ve seen outside of this festival in 2013.) Stranger by the Lake was a film hard to shake for different reasons. ‘Hitchcockian’ is the most abused coinage in all of criticism, however I would argue that Alain Guiraudie’s film earns the right to be labelled so: it is classical in form and control; perturbing and fascinating in its mercurial points of view; and is downright riveting as a thriller. The explicit gay sex is the most ordinary part of the film, although even it has its place as a heightened symbol of escalating danger—the titular stranger (and Freddie Mercury lookalike), who is simultaneously desired and feared by the naive protagonist, being secretly a murderer at heart. Like a quintessential Hitchcock, it unnerves not because it is framed as a whodunit, but more disturbingly, a howdunit.
Respectable, if at the more orthodox end of the scale, was Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Cannes-winner (Jury Prize) Like Father, Like Son, a domestic drama centred on two families who learn their sons were inexplicably swapped at birth. Kore-eda’s film is never melodramatic—he’s far too accomplished a filmmaker to allow for that—however it is his most scripted film by a long shot, and therefore, his most schematic. The journey of the two families, their attempts at resolution, their struggles to make the right decision, and most patently, the fathers’ diametrically opposed personalities and lifestyles (one is an emotionally cold corporate climber with daddy issues of his own; the other is a fun-loving, modest living small business owner who’s a terrific hands-on parent) is all spelled out in plain language. The subtly of emotion and carefully hidden resentment of Kore-eda’s previous triumphs is rarely glimpsed here, although it remains thoughtful and engrossing in composition—the same of which can be said of Haifaa’s Al Mansour noteworthy Wadjda, a fairly safe yet considered narrative of everyday oppression and longing that also happens to be Saudi Arabia’s first ever feature film. Although not in the same league as The Circle, Offside, and At Five in the Afternoon, Wadjda studiously joins the essential canon of films underlining the lack of sovereignty for women in the Middle East.
I’ve already extolled the virtues of some of my favourite films at this year’s NZIFF—the aforementioned Like Someone in Love, along with early highlights The Act of Killing, Museum Hours, Ilo Ilo, Camille Claudel 1915, and the Paradise Trilogy—so the last word must go to Norte, the End of History. As Steve Garden has noted, this extraordinary film embodied the key themes of a programme whose resonance only deepened as its many layers were revealed over the course of the festival. In terms of sheer scope, precision, and strength of vision, Lav Diaz’s film sat at the very top of the heap, and there was a distinct trickle-down effect in that its reflections on violence, oppression, morality, and historical amnesia continued through numerous other films. Along with Steve and Brannavan Gnanalingam’s insightful reviews, local critics David Larsen and Doug Dillaman have written extensively in praise of the film. Nevertheless, a few stray observations: notably, Diaz’s majestic use of widescreen, in which his long-take compositions are as absorbing as the film’s novelistic detail, and in their subtly dramatic choreography (deft camera movement, as well as movement within the frame, contribute to a tableaux that is anything but ‘static’), are a pleasure to explore; and the beautifully controlled tone, which is somehow all together conversational, eventful, and contemplative in the same breath.
Norte, the End of History is by no means a ‘difficult’ film (in reductive ‘cultural vegetable’ speak), but alas, perception is everything, and the idea of a four-hour movie from the Philippines is just too daunting for some. This is frustrating, because Diaz’s film really does challenge the misconception that cinema of this length is gruelling or self-indulgent in nature. Peter Jackson gets a free pass to stretch a children’s novella into three extra-long movies, and binge television culture is now the norm, and yet a film of Norte’s constitution is all too readily ignored. In the end though, all that really matters is that it was in the festival in the first place. Arriving straight from Cannes, programmers were generous enough to grant it three sessions in Auckland, and there’s a nice equilibrium at play in that two of those screenings overlapped Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo, a crowd-puller if ever there was one. In the balance between commerce and art, this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival may have just found the sweet spot.