Apron Strings

Part of The New Zealand International Film Festivals
10-27 July 2008

For native filmgoers weaned on a year-round diet of brassy popcorn-fare, arthouse crossovers, and terminal granny-vision the Auckland International Film Festival is a winter coup: Freed of market politics, and paced across a leisurely 17 days, it’s a chance to catch-up on cinema’s finest offerings, before once again being shunted into darkness.

Given the festival’s awkward calendar-placement – falling, as it does, during the three-month hangover between Cannes and Toronto – it’s typical to see art-household names from last year (Silent Light, Don’t Touch the Axe, The Man From London etc.) rubbing shoulders with the latest Palme contenders. On behalf of the latter, this year saw the screening of portentous mafia saga Gomorra; Steve McQueen’s shit-smeared debut, Hunger, Lorna’s Silence, by the Dardenne brothers, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys, as well as Ari Folman’s forceful and disquieting Waltz With Bashir, an animated inquiry into the nature of memory, pegged to the filmmaker’s personal involvement during the 1982 War in Lebanon. Still on a victory lap, these films arrived as tokens of their own currency, pandering to our appetite for the New. Once the lights went down, however – and the hype fled like a billow of smoke – everything became fair game.

All in all I saw 33 features, two of which (Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Flight of the Red Balloon and Hong Sang-soo’s Night and Day) I’d venture were masterpieces. Both films find their Asian auteurs adrift in France for the first time, yet vary wildly in their appraisal of their foreign locale. Where Hong’s film takes place almost entirely within a proxy Korean community (mirroring the arrested mindset of its male protagonist), Hou’s unfolds effortlessly, collapsing cultural difference into a rhapsodic celebration of the universal.

In fact, given the ease with which it absorbs its source text (Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 short, The Red Balloon), Hou’s film seems to signal a new way of relating film to the world around us – one more concomitant with the fluid, shifting layers of digital reality. Having Edward Yang on-hand (courtesy a seven-film retrospective) drove the point home. Despite his rich compassion, Yang was an essentialist at heart, favouring a strict, geometric mise en scène; consequently, he saw the frame as an upper-limit, a modernist rectangle that enforced his character’s isolation. With Hou, on the other hand, the image has become a permeable reality, meaning that characters and their environments are no longer fixed articles; shunning mastershot austerity, he and DP Mark Li Ping-bing employ frequent close-ups of reflective surfaces, literally dissolving objects in a dance of light and movement. (A key shot finds a group of school children posted before Félix Vallotton’s painting, “The Balloon”, their faces visibly enmeshed in the work’s negative spaces, as a teacher guides their responses to it). Stationed, as such, in the gap between art and life, the film takes on a transparency that makes it more receptive to the elusive mix of culture, history, art and nostalgia flowing through it. Privy to that saturation, Hou’s triangle of players – an inquisitive seven year-old (Simon Iteanu), his highly-strung mother (Juliette Binoche), and the nanny she hires to take care of him (Fang Song) – register less as human beings, and more like wavelengths, varying in intensity and seamlessly inscribed across the course of his patient, subdued long takes. Whereas the cool dissonance of Oliver Assayas once felt like a suitable emblem for 21st century anhedonia, Hou flips that skepticism into a proof-of-life, weaving our fractured narratives into a gorgeous symphony of feeling and place.

A viable companion piece to Flight turned out to be In the City of Sylvia, José Luis Guerín’s beguiling urban odyssey, in which a nameless artist (Xavier Lafitte) pursues a beautiful woman (Pilar López de Ayala) through the streets of “Sylvia”. Like Hou, Guerín promotes a more dynamic link between people and their environment, framing his lead’s quest as a struggle to ascribe meaning to the ambient chaos of his surroundings. Laying the grounds for that credo is a dazzling sequence in which, seated at a locale café, the artist quietly sets about sketching its female clientele, as the camera rallies his vagrant sightlines into a Manet-like portrait of urban communion. More than simply tapestry though, Guerín’s lens has a way of stripping life to an absurd essence: caught in his stare, people are reduced to a senseless material, placidly awaiting the balm of narrative; that much is delivered when the man picks out a ghostly brunette from behind a smear of reflections – convinced she’s someone he met years ago – and sets about following her. Shot in Strasbourg, the film mines a playful tension in the gap between its setting’s integrity, and its elevation to fantasy at the hands of its protagonist’s desire. All the while, Guerín remains bemusedly detached, cloaking his everyman in a near-silence that forces the viewer to improvise in the same way the artist does, inspiring a rapid turnover of responses to his erratic behaviour. The result is rare, transcendent experience, in which the act of viewing becomes tantamount to an act of creation.

Everybody hurts sometimes in Apron Strings, another tale of city life, helmed by first-time New Zealand director Sima Urale. Designed to reflect the changing face of Auckland, the film divides its attention between two local families, one Sikh and one European, arranging their fates as a crude compare-and-contrast exercise. On the ethnic side of the divide, you have Tara (Leela Patel) and Anita (Laila Rouass), two sisters locked in silence ever since Anita broke family creed by marrying a New Zealander. Deprived of such earthy trauma in fleshing out the second family (“whiteness” being asymptomatic, after all), screenwriters Shuchi Kothan and Diane Taylor instead fall back on stock middle-class hot-buttons: as the owner of a local cake house, bitter matriarch Lorna (Jennifer Ludlum) is the victim of a defunct master-class racism, openly protesting the rising ethnic population of the neighbourhood. At home however, she can barely control her own son Barry (Scott Wills) – a jobless alcoholic who casually squanders away his money on horserace betting – while her daughter, returning from London, is nearly unrecognisable as a brainwashed, health-conscious liberal (she refuses to eat meat, you see).

More an object lesson than reflection-of-our-times, Apron Strings wilts at the hands of political responsibility. Desperate to please all parties, its script is a lesson in guilt evasion, where every character flaw is met by an equal and opposite perk. That dead symmetry feeds into the film’s larger order, wherein the two families become mirror-entities – on the same collision course from repression to tolerance. Thus, Lorna must come to accept her son by learning to cook his favourite curry dish, the recipe for which she obtains from Tara, who must likewise reunite with her estranged sister, yada yada yada. Aside from these token stumbles at connection though, the storylines feel like the Frankenstein-halves of two separate movies; reduced to mechanically cross-cutting between them, Urale only emboldens the kind of essentialism she’s railing against. The result is a movie drained of any life, meaning the only recourse becomes a savouring of the perverse. Agreeing, for instance, to visit her pregnant daughter in hospital, Lorna recoils in horror as she’s met with the money shot of the film’s liberal revenge-ploys – a black grandchild.

Ballast

A more convincing portrait of racial hardship ultimately lay in Ballast, Lance Hammer’s quietly astonishing debut, which justly took out the award for Best Director at Sundance earlier this year. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of Sundance prize-winners: quirky toybox comedies (à la Me and You and Everyone We Know, etc.), and sombre regional showcases, fueled by the everyday problems of real people. Technically, Ballast falls in line with the latter, yet it also defies the limits of its template, demonstrating an emotional suppleness and feel for the landscape that’s more on par with the work of the Dardennes. Set in the Mississippi Delta, the film tells the story of three people (brother, son, and ex-wife) intimately affected by a man’s suicide. Discovering his sibling’s dead body one morning, Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.) enters into a catatonia that verges on the Zen, remaining unfazed even as his own nephew robs him at gunpoint. As compensation, Hammer deflects his trauma into his surroundings, conjured here as a grey, barren wasteland; yet lacking the innate connection that defined, say, Silent Light’s family of Mennonites, the result is unnaturally austere, as the film struggles to find an emotional centre. That much arrives during the film’s second half, where, in the void of trauma, Lawrence bands together with his brother’s son and ex-wife to form a makeshift family; acting as their nerve centre is an old family convenience store, which turns out to be the rightful property of the widowed, and which she insists on restoring to working order. Nevertheless, the path to redemption remains littered with old grievances, and in hashing out their conflicts, Hammer is remarkably attentive to the needs of each person. What’s more, he proves that realism need not profit at the expense of visual considerations: shot on 35mm, the film manages to invoke an atmosphere of lush doom, without ever compromising its grip on the reality of life’s pain.

Based on the evidence of Lorna’s Silence, the Dardenne’s well-crafted, yet ultimately disappointing effort, Ballast may have been a case of student trumping master(s). Like their previous The Child, the film uses the sale of bodies as shorthand for a desperate sub-order – one in which Europe’s borders cease to exist, and the only ruling principle is the Euro. Shunning cool abstraction however, the brothers keep this sated as a human drama, relentlessly grounding our interest in the presence of Lorna (played by Kosovo actress Arta Dobroshi). At the same time, they also withhold key pieces of narrative information, forcing the audience to elide judgement over questionable character behaviour. But whereas in the past that claustrophobia has been used to devastating ends, here Lorna’s dilemma proves to be intuitively clear; as such, the burden of guilt is leveed from the outset, draining the impact from a key turning point that sees the film taking flight from taut drama into a delusional spiritualism. Overall, the brothers’ films work best when they negotiate forgiveness as a fraught exchange between two people; yet here – left to fend for herself as she suffers the pangs of a phantom pregnancy – Lorna feels like an easy object of pity.

Inviting a more complicated response to its heroine’s affliction is Secret Sunshine, Lee Chang-dong’s devastating follow-up to 2002’s Oasis. On paper, the story – about a woman turning to God, following the murder of her young son – has all the earmarks of Korea’s fondness for unrestrained melodrama. Yet Lee counters the story’s emotional content with his blunt, almost ruthless structural shifts, and even-handed exposure of religion’s hypocrisies. When Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) first accepts God, for example, she undergoes a near-Lynchian transformation, emerging as a creepy avatar of inner-peace, whose notion of goodwill happens to include exploiting the affection of her desperate admirer (played by token goofball Song Kang-ho). Nevertheless, a loophole in her faith – whereupon her son’s murderer attains forgiveness from God, before she deigns to offer as much – proves to be too much, sending her reeling into a cracked downward-spiral. In negotiating the character’s shifts, Jeon is rivetting – flipping seamlessly between pillowy denial and wrought self-abasement – and, in the process, bearing something of her own soul.

Waltz With Bashir

There’s a scene halfway through Waltz With Bashir where a friend recounts a story to the filmmaker about a drafted photographer’s experience during the war. When asked why he remained so unperturbed by the horror he was forced to witness on a daily basis, the soldier remarks that he tried to see everything “as if through a camera”. Likewise, Folman’s film seems to exist in a state of denial, blanketing the garish reality of war in an expressive animation style that only subsides during the final scene, as Folman dramatically cuts to stock footage of the Sabra-Shatila massacres. Given its penchant for dreamlike imagery (in one recurring sequence, three lithe, naked bodies rise up from the sea, drifting towards a shoreline awash in chaos) the film has been accused of aestheticising – and hence, whitewashing – the tragic events surrounding 1982 war in Lebanon. Yet Folman’s film could more accurately be described as an attempt to reconcile its two warring realities (one objective and one resolutely not); when the film opens, the director is thrown into crisis by the fact that he’s no longer able to recall his time spent as a serviceman. Thus, spurred by the threat of immemory, he embarks on a journey into the past, meeting with colleagues who offer up their own recollections of combat. In contrast to the domineering trajectory of the American war film – which witnesses the breakdown of collective machismo into singleminded terror – Waltz With Bashir takes on the shape of a fractured overlay, where it’s every man for himself. Forced to navigate that labyrinth, Folman’s quest becomes saddled with a sad futility – a desperation that, contrary to the blanket slogan of “never forget”, seeks to validate tragedy by rejoining it to individual experience.

Offering a more empirical approach to history was Steve McQueen’s Hunger, a monument in favour of Bobby Sands (played here by Michael Fassbender), the IRA radical who spearheaded the Maze prison hunger strikes of 1981. In essence, McQueen composes the film like an art object, splintering it into three movements, each of which concerns itself with a separate aspect of suffering. The first – as fetishistic as any Cremaster movie – explores the body as a site of protest and pain: prisoners spill urine into the hallway, watching as lone puddles seep together; men outfitted in riot gear violently bear down on naked flesh; shit coats the walls of a baby-yellow lock-up. In contrast, the film’s final movement turns that suffering inwards, observing as Sands slowly starves to death on a hospital bed. Bridging those two antipodes is a sustained dialogue between Sands and a visiting priest (Liam Cunningham), who engages him in a theological debate over the merits of a proposed hunger strike. Curtly rejecting the priest’s qualms, Sands confirms that McQueen’s aim is to move beyond descant (both religious and political) in favour of an immersion in the physical. Thus, disengaging Sands from his own “celebrity”, McQueen forces him to comply with institutional role-playing, cutting back and forth across the prisoner/guard divide, and watching as their differences repeatedly dissolve into ceremonial violence. Unlike Gus Van Sant though, whose portraits of drones border on the ambient, McQueen uses the technique to inject stilted narrative threads into his otherwise free-roaming sculpture. The opening segment, for instance, dedicated to the anal morning routine of a prison guard, seems to exist only to provide a banal contrast to his later-revealed monstrosity.

Body-horror took on a more flamboyant turn in Diary of the Dead, George Romero’s fifth installment in his “Living Dead” series, pitched as an assault on the “look ma” hijinks of Generation-Y(outube). The grandaddy’s thesis? That the rise of democratic information hubs – MySpace is name-dropped – has turned us into a horde of camera-wielding zombies, compelled by a maxim of “shoot first, upload later”. Naturally, that voyeuristic thirst for bloodshed comes to include you – the viewer – engorged via a sloppy mimicry of Blair Witch’s first-person claustrophobia; in the case of Diary, camera duties are delegated to Jason Creed (Joshua Close), a drab college student, in the midst of directing his own zombie flick when news hits of the epidemic’s outbreak. What follows is a typical flight for salvation, strewn with equal measures of zombie-limbs and inanely voiced social-commentary (as Jason keeps iterating, “If it didn’t happen on camera, it’s like it didn’t happen”).

Diary of the Dead

Ditching Romero’s stabs at grandeur, [Rec.], helmed by Spanish collaborators Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, is a tour-de-force of gut-punch horror. Like Diary of the Dead, it confines itself to the viewpoint of its diegetic cameraman, framing itself as an episode of “While You’re Asleep”, a tacky exposé-show, hosted by the impossibly perky Ángela (Manuela Velasco). When the film opens, Ángela is posted outside a firestation, introducing what promises to be an innocuous tour of its inner-workings. But an emergency call soon finds her tagging along with the men-in-red, called out by neighbours to investigate the strange noises emanating from an old woman’s apartment. Upon arriving, they join forces with a handful of police officers in trying to placate the woman, clearly in some kind of distress, as she staggers forward, her blood-soaked negligee clinging to her like a wraith. But it’s only once the camera alights on her face, revealing a digital-slur of pale flesh, contracted pupils, and an otherwordly scowl, that the film takes a hard right-turn into chaos. Startled by the sudden invasion of the camera, the woman lurches forward, biting a chunk out of a nearby sergeant’s neck. From there on, it’s only a matter of time before the virus begins to make its way through the building’s residents. Acting as our tour-guide is Ángela, who quickly sheds her nymphal camera-mugging in favour of raw instinct, urging her cameraman (Pablo Rosso) to “tape everything”. If you’re looking for an agenda behind that imperative though, then good luck: lacking the 9/11 overhang of Cloverfield, or even the roughshod self-reflexivity of Romero’s film, [Rec.] often feels like a video game. Not helping matters is the fact that its narrative is founded on a highly-transparent gimmick, namely, that the virus takes hold according to the person’s blood-type, meaning that transformations occur on the whim of the directors. But all of that is overshadowed by the sheer terror of what we witness. Unmarred by punkish sadism, Balagueró and Plaza present a convincing portrait of human lives awhirl in mounting agony and chaos; even when they threaten self-parody with an ending that openly references Blair Witch, they emerge triumphant, trading that film’s opaque final-shot with one that stares headlong into the face of death.

Night and Day – Hong Sang-soo’s latest riff on (what else?) Korean gender politics – opens with a scenario that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Judd Apatow comedy. As an intertitle informs us, artist Seong-nam (Kim Yeong-ho) has fled to Paris, hoping for an impending charge over weed possession to blow over. Despite voicing his desire for a “new start”, Seong-nam fails to adapt to his locale, holing himself up in a Korean guesthouse, from which he routinely calls his ailing wife back home in Seoul. Soon, however, in an archetypal Hong setup, he runs into an old flame, Min-seon (Kim Yu-jin), at first failing to recognise her. upon resolving things, they bounce to a local café, where Min-seon discusses their past with mixed emotion (she claims to have suffered six abortions at his hands). From thereon, the pair continue seeing each other, threatening to collapse into coitus at several points – though Seong-nam remains resolute, declaring that they must “resist sin.” Expressed more out of practicality than any real moral inclination, Seong-nam’s fidelity becomes more difficult to uphold after he’s introduced to a young painter Hyeon-ju (Seo Min-jeong), in the hope that he may be able to mentor her. At the same time, he also meets the student’s roommate, Yu-jeong (Park Eun-hye), whom he quickly develops a crush on.

Night and Day

Enmeshed in these petty conflicts of the heart, it might be easy to mistake Night and Day as a weightless rom-com, albeit, one populated by Hong’s De Stijlian cast of boorish males and pliant females. Contrary to Hong’s coy tagline however (assuring us that “[e]verything is what it seems”), the film is in fact wracked with a violent neuroses over the performativity of everyday life. Like in The Flight of the Red Balloon, a scene set in the Musée d’Orsay proves to be key: regarding Courbet’s painting “The Origin of the World”, which depicts a naked, reclining torso, the vagina exposed, Seong-nam declares that he doesn’t like the title, presumably because it alters the integrity of the subject. Similarly, Hong’s anti-hero may crave sexual conquest over Yu-jeong, but he has no patience for the social rituals erected around that endpoint; consequently, his relationship with the two roommates grows more and more skittish, as he flips his affection randomly between the two, finally coaxing Yu-jeong into taking a trip to the seaside so they can fuck. Parallel to Seong-nam’s quest, Hong sets up an alluring game of doubles (day vs night, drunk vs sober, dream vs reality, Yu-jeong vs Hyeon-ju) whose promise of order quietly disintegrates as the film goes on; at one point, suffering a breakdown of personal narrative, the artist bemoans that he can no longer tell day from night, and indeed the film’s universe seems to have devolved into a nightmare, set against a Paris whose contrasting tidiness is almost suffocating. Nevertheless, Hong refuses to abate the tension, carrying it through to the film’s bittersweet end. The result is a masterpiece, and maybe the director’s best work to date, one that recapitulates his pet themes with near-apocalyptic grandeur.

***

Celebrating its 40th year in service, The Auckland International Film Festival shows no signs of abating as the city’s go-to event for experiencing contemporary film, shadowing the year’s remaining crop of speciality events like a zeppelin. At the end of the day, though, that monopolising presents itself as both a gift and a curse. While, on the one hand it ensures that a New Zealander remain on par with international audiences, the dismal lack of follow-up distribution tends to turn viewers (or myself, at least) into box-ticking drones, who, arrested by the possibility that work by vital directors won’t return, aren’t granted enough leeway to branch out and experiment in their viewing. Of course, that’s hardly a fault of the organisers; yet it would be miraculous if the rest of the system could catch-up to their forward-thinking attitude to film programming in New Zealand. As it stands, they’re the resounding exception to a rule of mediocrity.

New Zealand International Film Festivals website: http://www.nzff.co.nz