The Rotterdam Dispatch, Part 3:
Home Dramas

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
At the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Song Fang’s astute debut feature; plus, via “Changing Channels”, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first foray into television.

A highlight of my recent visit to Rotterdam, Song Fang’s Memories Look at Me came courtesy of the festival’s ‘Bright Future’ section—an out-of-competition programme consisting of new, largely unknown films by novice directors—and yet very much arrived with a built-in reputation. Along with claiming the Best First Feature prize at the Locarno Film Festival, Song’s film brought with it a key creative partner in China’s leading contemporary auteur, Jia Zhangke (whose Xstream Pictures co-produced), as well as her own familiar face—she played the Taiwanese film student-cum-nanny in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 2007 film, Flight of the Red Balloon. Serving as inaugural Dean of the Pusan International Film Festival’s Asian Film Academy in 2005, Hou mentored Song—then a first year student at the Beijing Film Academy working towards her graduate short film, Goodbye (2008)—before recruiting her to act, essentially as herself, opposite the formidable Juliette Binoche. During the shoot in Paris, the opportunity for Song to observe Hou in action was cherished but also sadly limited; her time on set restricted to the filming of scenes (as opposed to preparation, an artistic process fascinatingly recounted in this recent piece by Hou scholar James Udden), something I sense she quietly laments.

In person, Song appears no different from the muted young woman in Flight of the Red Balloon: subdued, soft-spoken, silently consumed by her thoughts. But while those personality traits extend to the sensibility of her work, the similarities between her practice and the execution of her mentors’ films only go skin deep. This subtle remove begins with the casting of Song’s parents in central roles: under her astute direction, they play themselves in a series of everyday conversations about aging, health, family history, and regret. By carefully calibrating each scene across an axis between ‘show’ and ‘tell’, in which Song initially appears in the foreground, seemingly instigating the topic of discussion before slipping into the background as her family members shift into focus, she is able to achieve a discrete emotional depth. The film’s closest forerunner, Jia’s 24 City, successfully broke the cardinal rule of to show, not tell, and Song referred to it as a model for how she could tell her story through dialogue, even though she confessed to being taught differently. “In film school, they tell you to do it some other way, such as through images and [camera] movement.” Crucially though, Memories Look at Me retains both its individuality as a filmwork and the provenance of its oral history. Significantly, its precise shape promotes directness ahead of ambiguity, which nullifies the annoying question of where the film sits between documentary and fiction. (In this case, it’s entirely beside the point.)

While both 24 City and Memories Look at Me are structured around personal testimony, Song’s film is the distinctly personal narrative of the two, eschewing the complexity of China’s communist past that the stories recounted within Jia’s film—both real and imagined—are inextricably linked too. This is not to say that the family’s memories aren’t coloured by the social and political transformations that have taken place—in fact, the first question Song was asked during the Q&A was if she born after the country’s one-child policy came into effect (as the younger sibling of two, she was born shortly before it was introduced)—but the impulse here is fundamentally inward and towards self-reflection. In accordance with the film’s title, Song interests lie in the way memories compel us to look at ourselves, to reflect on the time passed, and to come to terms with old we’ve become. A constant source of worry is age, with the conversation often turning to the spectre of death, the inevitability of physical decline, and the burden of growing old. The parents also worry about their daughter’s age in relation to her marriage prospects and career path—“real concerns,” according to Song, who added that she “didn’t intend to comment on tradition values, but wanted to talk about the basic concerns that parents have for their children… [even if] they do seem more visible in Chinese society.”

As this train of thought threatens to draw Song’s own private history out into the open, she pulls herself back from the conversation—a conscious move that’s less evasive than it is judicious, and interesting as a symbol of the implicit tension in the contrasting expectations of two generations. Of course, if there’s a risk to Song’s strategy of staying on the fringes of the narrative and revealing as little about herself as possible, it’s disingenuousness. Remarkably, it never becomes an issue, especially with her mother emerging as the perfect foil. The film’s most naked moments belong to Ye Yu-zhu, who as the most vocal member of the family, is also the most compelling. “I don’t know how she works either,” Song said of her mother’s mysterious capacity for catharsis through performance. “She has the ability to put herself into the situation, to put her true emotions in. So that’s why I like to use her as an actress. She can be true in the scenes.” Also employed to great effect are the sparse interiors of her parents’ apartment, where the majority of the film takes place. Confidently composed through the grace of Hou’s influence as a master of architectural space, their unadorned dwelling, particularly with its lack of material objects on display, invites history through listening rather than watching—a distinguishing feature of this quietly absorbing first film, whose maker has intelligently favored the aural appearance of memories over the wordless, rote observation of so many other art films.

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On her last day in Rotterdam, I asked Song if she had plans to see any films. “No, but I want to see the sea,” she replied, a refreshing response given the cold and characterless air of a Dutch port city known, conveniently during festival time, for driving people indoors. The following day, I arranged to meet up with Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. When I finally caught up with him at the tail end of a long media session, he was gracious but visibly jetlagged, his furthest thought being the darkened interior of a movie theatre. Kore-eda had arrived on a delayed flight from Tokyo the night before, and was ferried straight to a Q&A for the international premiere of his latest project, Going Home (known in Japan as Going My Home), a primetime drama series which screened in its 11-part entirety at the festival. Kore-eda’s first foray into television isn’t just another example of a name auteur embracing the small-screen format, and with it, long-form storytelling; it reflects a growing trend in the programming of made-for-TV content at film festivals, and by extension, the blurring of the lines between television and cinema, home and theatre, writer and director. This year, IFFR programmers have gone a step further by dedicating an entire sidebar to high-end television drama. Under the banner of “Changing Channels”, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s mini-series Penance (previously reviewed by Brannavan Gnanalingam at the Venice International Film Festival) and Agnieszka Holland’s Czechoslovakia drama for HBO, Burning Bush, were presented next to Going Home, along with abbreviated screenings of Prófugos, a drug trafficking serial produced and directed by Pablo Larraín (also for HBO), and Les Revenants (The Returned), an eight-part French series based on Robin Campillo’s excellent pseudo-zombie movie, They Came Back (2004).

I must admit that it was unusual to see the first two episodes of Season Two of Lena Dunham’s Girls also screen as part of “Changing Channels”—one of the most conspicuously consumed and discussed shows online this year—but there’s a logic to this programming insofar as it acknowledges that the golden age of television we’re now experiencing has coincided with the new means of distribution and conversation afforded by the Internet. Web series, therefore, featured prominently in the sidebar, although the examples chosen were largely confined to the American market, where the web series industry has flourished of late. A panel discussion between the creators of The Slope, Ingrid Jugermann and Desiree Akhavan, and the executive producer of AMC’s The Trivial Pursuits of Arthur Banks, Neda Armian, attempted to bring some of the reasons behind the rise of the web series to light, although for at least one of the participants, it was merely an opportunity for immodest self-promotion. I felt sorry for Kore-eda, who as the panel’s third wheel, had to sit through an egregious amount of gloating from Armian, a Type A personality who, in her brief but domineering appearance on the night, did little to remedy the stereotype of the blowhard American producer.

Kore-eda, a classical filmmaker and self-confessed technophobe, responded diplomatically to Armian’s clunky rhetoric around the changing landscape of film production and delivery—the usual catch cry of “the model is broken” followed by the “adapt or die” mantra. Unremarkable as those revelations are, they at least trend towards the notion that television (specifically, cable) offers not only more creative latitude for filmmakers, but also a different kind of outreach, where audiences no longer need to be encouraged from their homes, and by virtue of the ease of access and dissemination, help facilitate the distribution process—a distinctly online phenomenon. And increasingly, directors of reputation are getting to have their cake and eat it too: Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake received special billing at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals before its scheduled television run; mini-series by Olivier Assayas (Carlos) and Raul Ruiz (Mysteries of Lisbon) have enjoyed a substantial theatrical life well beyond their original, native broadcast; two recent Michael Winterbottom projects, The Trip and Everyday, were ostensibly made with dual purpose in mind; and Steven Soderbergh’s latest, Behind the Candelabra, will compete at Cannes in May despite being set to debut on HBO the same month.

However, when I asked Kore-eda if he was surprised to be in Rotterdam accompanying a television series, he answered with a definitive “yes,” an indication that there were no pretensions on his or Fuji TV’s part of muscling onto the film festival scene. There’s also more than a hint of modesty in his response when you consider that Going Home, apart from its prescribed episodic structure and subtle pandering to J-drama tropes, is the fully formed work of a single, authorial voice, and if not for the impracticality of its length, would be a certain selection on the circuit given its strong lineage to Still Walking and I Wish. (As things stand, the series is yet to screen beyond Rotterdam, where it was imported direct from Japan and specially subtitled at short notice.) Kore-eda, who wrote and directed every episode of Going Home, stressed that in making the switch to the small screen, there was no change in the artistic process and working methodology. As such, the results are aesthetically and thematically in sync with his impressive body of film work. In recent Kore-eda tradition, the series focuses on the family unit, its extended relations, and beneath its placid surface, an emotional undertow of resentment and remorse—ground the director covered impeccably in Still Walking, and in interviews ever since, has maintained a close, autobiographical proximity to the feelings and memories evoked.

Consistent across all of Kore-eda’s features is an abiding sense of loss, and in Going Home, themes of death and neglect work their way into an overarching plot concerning an absentee father whose hospitalization leads to his estranged son (Hiroshi Abe) confronting the life of a parent he knew next to nothing of. In familiar fashion, the son returns to his sleepy hometown and gets reacquainted with siblings, in-laws, and especially, his fidgety mother, whose loyal but distant relationship with her husband mirrors the strained marriage at the centre of Still Walking. Kore-eda has been the first to describe Going Home as an expansion of the domestic life depicted in Still Walking, and the hallmarks of that film are plain to see throughout this patient, rewarding series: not the least of which, the preparation and consumption of home cooking, an element Kore-eda was quick to emphasise “you cannot do without” in the Japanese home drama. “How you eat, with whom do you eat—those are very important questions,” he told me. “Not so much what you eat, but the conversation over meals, during the making of the meals, after the meals, when everything’s been cleaned up again.” Still, those with an appetite for Japanese cuisine will find it hard to overlook the mouthwatering food served up in every episode, and in keeping with Kore-eda’s “50/50” blend of personal and fictional detail, a few dishes of special significance are indulged: namely, a fondly remembered rice cake pizza once made by Kore-eda’s mother in his youth.

As witnessed in Still Walking, Kore-eda excels at directing large, cacophonous family scenes, and Going Home features a number of brilliantly staged gatherings, one in particular belonging to the last act, where the core cast of actors get to spar jovially over the dinner table, their energetic dialogue constantly overlapping before digressing into improvised banter (the actress You, a Kore-eda fixture with a reputation for going ‘off-script’, leads the charge here). Without giving too much away, this otherwise becalmed final episode recalls the droll comings and goings of Juzo Itami’s The Funeral, a movie exquisitely in flux between humour and pathos. Of Kore-eda’s own making, though, is the honest observation of characters outside of the framework of plot, and blessed with the generous timeline of the renzoku (continuous) format, he is able to fully—if also, humbly and unspectacularly—map the small journeys and reassuring routines of an entire extended family, a level of attention surely not possible within the confines of a conventional movie narrative.

The quiet naturalism and spontaneity of Kore-eda’s cinema is indeed alive and well here, as is the gentle narrative pacing. Even when commercial breaks and episode transitions press the issue of plot development, Kore-eda resists the call to roll forward the next event, instead accentuating the daily, material weight of his characters’ movements whenever possible—reason, perhaps, why the series was so poorly received by viewers in Japan. Puzzling, because Going Home is not without broad appeal either, and coming directly after the success of I Wish, manages to recapture some of the inquisitive charm of that effortlessly endearing film. The setting of many a pleasant Japanese drama, rural Japan is once again pictured in lush, bucolic overtones, its village people portrayed as eccentric yet kind-hearted folk. What’s more, Kore-eda evokes the popular world of Hayao Miyazaki with a major subplot involving the search for ‘Kuna’—a mythical race of tiny forest people whose elusive discovery is coveted by the ailing father—and with it, a concession to light environmentalism and childlike wonderment. The series is also Kore-eda’s funniest creation: his lead, the beanpole Hiroshi Abe, is constantly teased for his uncharacteristic height, while Japan’s kooky advertising industry is affectionately satirized throughout. The Japanese public might beg to differ, but Going Home, through its director’s assured and unassuming ways, has broken the mould of the orthodox home drama. Like the best television series, its dire ratings are a badge of honour.

The Lumière Reader’s Brannavan Gnanalingam and Tim Wong attended the 42nd International Film Festival Rotterdam in January. More of their coverage from the film festival to follow.