Monster From the Deep

Off the coast of Bangladesh, the tiny island of Banishanta (about 100 by 10 metres) is flat, exposed to the vagaries of the Bay of Bengal, with its treacherous monsoons and cyclones that flood the Pashur River. As the waves are lapping against the shoreline, pieces of land, of stone, of gravel, are disintegrating, washed away in the ocean, under the dark grey sky. Yet, people keep coming to the island, in a dingy little boat manned by Sohel, a young man who engagingly talks of his love for 21 year-old Khadija. The two meet only at night, in a small shantytown room, and they are usually exhausted from their respective work: Sohel for steering the boat, and Khadija for entertaining the sailors and fishermen from the port of Mongla, on the other side of the Pashur River. Banishanta houses one of the 14 official brothels in Bangladesh, a colourful yet impoverished community of women and children, tucked in corrugated iron shacks with thatched roofs, dangerously close to the water. The tales of what brought people there – from Sohel to Khadija to the other sex workers – stem from a repetitive cycle of poverty and exploitation: lack of skills and education, young girls escaping arranged marriages or violent husbands, women sold by their fathers or their husbands, women selling themselves to feed their children.

Bad Weather

Yet, far from falling into a sensationalist depiction of the woes of victimised sex workers, Bad Weather, by Italian documentarist Giovanni Giommi, lives up to its title, as it is as much about the fate of the island as the condition of the women. Falling from the sky in grey-brown gusts, permeating the earth, oozing under the shacks, invading the muddy alleys, dampening the paper-thin walls and the bright saris hanging on a nail, surrounding the fragile compound with the cloudy, dirty waves of the overflowing river, shrouding the landscape in the nostalgic mist of a scroll painting, water is everywhere, and Giommi’s exquisitely designed long panning shots capture the feeling of a liquid world, an island floating in a sea of uncertainty, under the threat of imminent eradication. Water is life, it is the livelihood and the mode of transportation of the sailors patronising the brothel, it is what connects the women to the life outside (children sent to school with the tricks money, meeting of an advocacy group to defend the rights of sex workers organised in Dhaka) but water is also death.

In 2009, Cyclone Aila killed hundreds of people and left hundreds of thousands homeless or without food or clean water. Banishanta was specially affected and only 65 women are left in the brothel. Swelling the water, global warming has also modified the geography of the port of Mongla. Because of its reduced coastline, it receives fewer ships now, so, for the brothel, business is bad, and becomes more sordid. Women fight over a man; men fight with the women over money; they are often brutal and abuse them. And, more importantly, people living on the island are dimly aware that it is doomed to be submerged. Giommi intercuts his intimate, affectionate vignettes of daily life with the lone rants of the local madman, Ismail, who keeps talking of doom and the near-by end.

NGOs and other international organisations have expressed concern about the ecological catastrophe awaiting Bangladesh and, at a micro-level, about the fate of the Banishanta sex workers, and Bad Weather, from this point of view, is political, yet it eschews the traditional tropes of the militant film (interviews, impassionate voice over) and, rather, lets the viewer be seduced by the allure of the island (“Banishanta” means “peaceful place”), and the fluid metaphor of the water. Giommi shares with us the sweet-and-sour poetry of the love story between the boatman and the prostitute: “Love is a feeling from deep inside for someone… What I have with Sohel is very different from what I get from other men. Other men use me for entertainment and give me pain… I get love and joy from him. He is different because he does not torture me. Maybe this is love.” He listens to the imam, who ministers to the women – they’re just doing their job, and he has to address their spiritual needs. In a scene of rare poignancy and beauty, he films the face of a young boy stoically undergoing an off-screen rite of circumcision, performed in a dirty little room; behind him, light seeps through a door opening toward the dock, creating a depth of field where a bevy of women in colourful saris assault a bunch of horny sailors. The sky is pregnant with rain, in a year, in two, the island will be swallowed into oblivion like the mythical city of Ys.

Leviathan

Bad Weather was arguably one of the most striking films of the latest VIFF, which counted a number of gems in its line-up. Visitors, however, were aware that the festival, as we knew it, might already be part of the past. By next year, the city of Vancouver will have lost a significant number of its commercial theatres (like the Granville Circuit) in which many festival screenings were hosted. Under the generous direction of Alan Franey, the team will have to struggle to find alternative venues, and maybe bring projection equipment to non-theatrical spaces. The double awareness of the impact of global warming and the economic crisis may have cast a shadow of melancholy, from which some of the best films sprung. For the sixth year in a row, the Festival offered a section of environmentally conscious films, in which Bad Weather was showcased, as well as another extraordinary offering, Leviathan, by the Harvard-based directing duo of Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, signing a film together for the first time. What the two films have in common is their elegant musical structure – with its thematic repetitions (the love story, the rain, the madman), sustained chords (the long panning shots) and contrapuntal expression of feelings, Bad Weather resembles an elegiac fugue, while Leviathan is a baroque opera.

Castaing-Taylor and Paravel spent several weeks on a fishing trawler, The Athena, docked in New Bedford, Mass (the town in which Herman Melville sets the first chapter of Moby-Dick), and took hours of footage, with cameras of various sizes that they were holding themselves or had affixed onto the helmets of the fishermen or thrown into the sea. (1) This footage, in turn, captures the activity of the men, the breaking of the waves, the flight of the seagulls, the coiling of a cable in the hold, the convulsive movements of the catch as it lay dying on the deck, the resistance of vivacious fish as they are being pulled out of the sea – from unusual angles, the point of view cropped or magnified: here you see a hand in a blue rubber glove; there a flight of birds obscuring the sky; there the eyes of a fish dying in close-up; there the delicate prism of colour, darkness and transparency that sparkles at the crest of a wave.

The result of patient, minute editing, Leviathan is a kaleidoscope of extremely short takes (with a few sustained shots functioning as rhythmical pauses), matched according to the logic of a vertiginous movement – from a dying fish to a bright orange pail being carried in the hold – or mismatched through blunt jump cuts, pushing Eisenstein’s conception of the shot as “a fragment torn from the real” to its post-Dziga Vertov, post-cubism extremes: a quick succession, as many spurts, of fragments that, stitched together, may or may not make sense. The world is confusing, the situation messy. Neither the man facing the waves in the little dinghy, nor the fish wriggling on the deck, nor the birds in the sky have the whole picture, each absorbed in the task to carry out, the space to go through or the fate imposed upon them.

This effect of chaos is amplified by the composition of the sound track. Sound artist/sonic ethnographer Ernst Karel and award-winning sound designer Jacob Ribicoff collaborated to rework the ambient sound recorded during the shooting – the muted voices of the men shouting orders or instructions, the roaring of the sea, the deafening hum of the engine, the distant cries of the birds. Sometimes brought to the limit of the bearable, the sound texture and the truncated vision reproduce the sensory experience of what it means to be on the deck, in the hold, in the dinghy, during many a fishing night.

Designed like a cathedral, or constructed like an opera, Leviathan owes to the structural choices made in the editing room to maintain a miraculous balance between abstraction and documentation. Trained anthropologists, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel know how to film men at work – with intimacy, distance, precision and respect. Close-ups of the wrinkled, handsome face of Captain Brian Jannelle, or a long shot of the same man in a moment of quiet relaxation bring to mind some similar moments in Wang Bing’s Crude Oil (Cai you ri ji, 2008) for example. On the other hand, the references become pictorial; the way light is sculpted, brutally thrown from a projector, or subdued in chiaroscuro, or filtered through the liquid element, echoes the marine paintings of Turner – from Fishermen at Sea (1796) to the more abstract experiments of his later period, such as Burial at Sea (1842). The staccato rhythm through which the images are delivered, the saturation of colours (pitch-black and flickers of white; variations of red, orange, amber and brown; shades of grey and dark blue; an infinite gamut of greens), the truncated forms reach a point of abstraction reminiscent of Pollock’s action painting, in which the representational impulse was subsumed through an interplay of lines, movements and splashes of pure colours.

This to-and-fro movement from what we recognise, what we guess and what baffles us – from the human, the non-human and the uncanny – takes the viewer into a journey toward the unknowable. Leviathan starts with a quote from The Book of Job describing the mythical sea-monster that “maketh the deep to boil like a pot… maketh a path to shine after him; one would think the deep to be hoary… is without fear.” As commercial fishing is also suffering from the consequences of global warming, these men labour, day in and day out, to bring back seafood to consumers. As we have polluted the earth, the oceans become more untameable, and, more than doing “a simple job,” these men (and we with us) are confronted with a very old face of evil, the unpredictability of the liquid mass that surrounds us. If our consciousness has changed since biblical times, it is because we now think that the monster lurking in the deep may be our creation.

Framing Time, Framing Desire

Other filmmakers were more modest, but no less precise and eloquent, in outlining “the nothingness” that threatens to engulf us.

Reconversão

A commission from the Portuguese festival Curtas Vila do Conde, Thom Andersen’s latest essay film, Reconversão, interrogates 17 buildings and projects by the 2011 Pritzker Prize winner architect Souto Moura (as the film also functions as a reflection on architectural practices in Portugal, only the projects conceived by Souto Moura for his home country are considered, not visible international endeavours such as the Serpentine Gallery pavillion in London). Starting in a granite quarry, the voice over (that of Encke King, recognisable from a similar turn of duty in Andersen’s 2003 film, Los Angeles Plays Itself) ponders that Portugal is divided in two: granite architecture in the North, clay in the South. A native of Porto, Souto Moura is a man of the North – hence, as it is mentioned en passant, the difficulty for some of his designs to be accepted in Lisbon.

Andersen’s touch is light, gently ironical, effortlessly bringing to light “the desire that gave birth to the form” (2) even before what constitutes the coda of the piece, a congenial conversation between the filmmaker and the architect. As always, Andersen conducts his formal research at two levels that mirror each other: the “thing” that he studies, and cinematic language. Reconversão turns architecture and cinema as two complementary modes of exploring the concept of time and the aesthetics of framing. Souto Moura’s artistic originality is indeed his entropic conception of architecture – incorporating the passing of time into his designs, positing them within a history fraught with class struggle and societal changes, in a continuum with ruins – from which they may originate, and to which they will return – and with nature – which they frame, and by which they are framed.

“If there was nothing there, I invent a pre-existence,” says Souto Moura, somewhat jokingly. There is always something before – be the “natural” landscape, perpetually reworked by history in the case of a European country like Portugal; or a pre-existing building, such as a monastery turned into a touristic inn; or ruins to be transformed, built upon or foregrounded. One of Souto Moura’s most endearing realisations is the work he did in “Campo 24 de Agosto”, one of the fourteen stations of the Porto Metro he designed – sometimes with the help of “other architects whose work he likes”. During construction, the remnants of a 16th century fountain (Arca de Água de Mijavelhas) was found, its broken arches propped on smooth contemporary concrete blocks and integrated to the overall design of the concourse. A more controversial project was the Mercado Municipal de Braga, which weaves a fascinating conversation between urban design, obsolescence, decay, ruins and reconstruction. The indoor market no longer fulfilled its function; it was destroyed and turned into artificial ruins in an open-air garden by Souto Moura himself, who also took the opportunity to design additional buildings, such as a music school.

In both projects, the question of framing is essential, both in a spatial, temporal and ecological sense. Even in less ambitious design for private houses, Souto Moura carefully provides openings in the wall, framing what is outside in ways that makes it visually interesting, be a passing train in an industrial wasteland. Andersen’s cinematic approach also raises the question of framing within a temporal context – combining his own research on Eadweard Muybridge and proto-cinema with digital modes of recording. His DP, experimental filmmaker Peter Bo Rappmund, shot one or two frames per second, later animating the images. The seductive mixture of hyper-realism and outworldliness (I think of an orange cat leaping out of a disused building leaving only a streak of colour across the screen) makes us aware at discrete events that would have been unnoticed – the rustling of leaves on a tree, the movements of light and shadow on a wall, and make us look at buildings as temporal fragments encapsulating mankind’s irreducible “desire for happiness”.

If cats inhabit abandoned urban areas in Reconversão, dogs roam through the abandoned streets of a former Portuguese colony in The Last Time I Saw Macao (A Ultima vez que vi Macao) by João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata. Rodrigues is the splendid director of O Fantasma (2000), Odete/Two Drifters (2005) and To Die Like a Man (Morrer Como Um Homem, 2009), and Guerra da Mata his long-time collaborator (as production designer or co-screenwriter).

The Last Time I Saw Macao

The Last Time I Saw Macao is filled with phantoms – the spectre of Portuguese colonialism, forgotten memories (Guerra da Mata grew up in Macao, but left thirty years ago) and unfinished stories in past films. For one, the decision to omit all the drag queens performances from To Die Like a Man did not sit well with the spectacular Cindy Scrash, who had played Irene, the best friend of the main protagonist Tonia. And, when talking about Macao, which gay man can tell the difference between actual memories and the mystique of Jane Russell throwing her high-heel pump through a porthole and singing “You Kill Me” to a room filled with indifferent gamblers in Macao (Joseph von Sternberg/Nicholas Ray, 1952)? Last year, Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata co-directed the short Red Dawn (Alvorada vermehla, 2011), in which documentary shots of Macao’s famous Red Market were rendered mysterious by the close-up of a lone high-heel pump standing on the pier – the bloody realities of gutting and disembowelling animals and seafood transmuted into a self-professed “homage to Jane Russell”.

From Russell to the Market, the shoe travels back to Cindy Scrash who, before disappearing from the fiction as she had disappeared from the stage of To Die Like a Man, is given her day in court, a pair of fetishistic high heels, a sequined outfit, a blonde wig and… a cage containing live tigers in front of which she can perform“You Kill Me”. We’ll never see her again, but her allure, her perfume, her throaty voice continue to linger at the border of the frame. Guerra da Mata, playing himself, returns to Macao, searching for his old friend, Candy, who had written to him “she had been involved yet again with the wrong men” and that “strange and scary things were happening”. The narrator, uncoiling a noirish monologue, always arrives too late, or at the wrong place, and, unable to find Candy, indulges in a nostalgic travelogue in a city that no longer coincides with his childhood memories and has, in some places, literally gone to the dogs. Until one lone high heel pump is found standing on the pier, exactly as in Red Dawn, but this time we suspect the story behind the missing shoe.

Morning of St. Anthony’s Day

That Rodrigues may be in a (creative) moment of hollow tide, preoccupied with remnants, is also visible in the short film he directed for Vila do Conde, Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day (Manhã de Santo António), an abstract choreography restaging what is left the morning after the Feast of Saint Anthony of Padua, Lisbon’s patron saint. The film is exemplary in what it reveals of Rodrigues’s aesthetics – that consists of artfully withholding visual gratification, generating the desire to see more, to imagine, to allow oneself to be haunted by invisible presences. Either Cindy/Irene/Candy does not dance, or she goes missing. In Morning, apart from the last shot, we don’t see the faces of the participants, 40-odd young revellers sick, exhausted or bored from a night of partying. Consistently shot from the back, or in distant, tantalising profile, they stumble through the deserted city like zombies, collapse on marble stairs, exit the subway in silence, glide through escalators, pass out face down on the ground, vomit, stare absent-mindedly at their cell phones, walk into ponds, are oblivious of the few cars that pass in the streets (and rarely has the architecture of Lisbon, its combination of historical memories and hyper-modern pan-European design, been so lovingly shot).

Yet, there is a twist, as Rodrigues quotes a few lines from the great Portuguese poet/philosopher, the bard of Lisbon, Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935): “At the ball where everybody dances
/ Someone’s left out /
It is better not to go
/ Where one will not be.” Anthony of Padua, among his many holy functions, is also the patron saint of lovers, and for his holiday the custom is to bring a pot of basil with paper carnations to the object of your affection. And what if, as Pessoa intimates, there is nobody to offer it to? At the end, in the only succession of reverse angles in the film, the statue of Saint Anthony looks at a young man still holding his basil, as if to say “You fool!”; in anger the young man throws the pot at the statue… and, equal to himself, Rodrigues turns the aftermath of a rather conventional holiday into a tale of desire and its frustration.

To Hell and Back to Heaven

Emperor Visits the Hell

Rodrigues was on the jury of the Dragons and Tigers competition, one of the high points of the VIFF, and this year the award went to a most unusual film, probably also one of the cheapest in the line-up, Emperor Visits the Hell (Tang huang you difu). This was the third short feature by Li Luo, whose first two films, I Went to the Zoo the Other Day (2009, an off-beat forerunner to Denis Côté’s remarkable Bestiaire), and Rivers and My Father (2010), both shown at BAFICI, were already an intriguing hybrid of fiction and documentary, and, like Emperor, shot in black-and-white HD. Rivers explored hybridity as a crossing of national, cultural and generational boundaries – the filmmaker lives in Toronto, his father is still in China. This third opus, more ambitiously, conceives of hybridity as an aesthetic collage of genres and literary influences, the past illuminating the present (or is it the other way around?).

Outwardly, the film is an adaptation of the first three chapters of the legendary classic novel Journeys to the West (Xi You Ji, attributed to Wu Cheng’en, circa 1492). Under the rule of Emperor Li Shimin (who, as titles remind us, owe his throne to the murder of his siblings), the Dragon King attempts to cheat Heaven by conning a monk to a dumb bet about the weather. In turn, the Heavenly bureaucracy sentences him to death, but, as there is some guangxi (connection) between him and Li Shimin, the Dragon King begs the Chinese Emperor to save him from the Heaven’s executioner. Li Shimin (Li Wen) attempts to distract the latter (who turns out to be his Prime Minister, Wei Zheng) with a game of Go, but bores him to sleep instead; in his dream, Wei cuts the head of the Dragon King that falls from Heaven, frightening the population; Li Shimin himself starts getting very sick, then dies and descends into Hell.

Li Luo cast a bunch of his friends, but, instead of emperors and heavenly creatures we have early 21st century corporate workers, petty bureaucrats, bar owners, demure wives, neighbourhood gangsters sporting necklaces and sunglasses, impoverished fishermen and small shopkeepers, and the film becomes an ironical comment on contemporary political mores. Guangxi works everywhere, and Cui Gui, the Judge that presides in Hell, used to be Wei’s best friend, so accommodations involving a transfer of money from the underworld to aboveground (in the Mom-and-Pop grocery stand, no less!) are arranged. There is, however, a symbolic price to pay, such as kowtowing to the ghosts of all the people whose death Li Shimin was responsible for (quite a few, but they don’t seem too threatening). At the end, everybody gets drunk during a celebration of Li Shimin’s return to life, which is also a wrap party for the film, and the performer Li Wen loudly bitches about the state of the arts in China.

Shot in the city of Wuhan, that lays at the intersection of two rivers and is graced by two lakes, the film has a texture as intriguing as its narration, mixing calligraphy (Li Shimin’s profession in the diegesis), drawings, photographic books, allusions to Go and Martial arts strategy, faux vérité, documentary footage of the flooding that took place in Wuhan in June 2011, exquisitely composed landscape photography versus hand-held camera and distorting lenses and, in the film’s most mysterious scene, “The Cold Song” from Purcell’s King Arthur (1696) sung by an East Village icon, countertenor Klaus Nomi (1944-83).

By one of these coincidences that are programmers’ candy, Uproar in Heaven (Da’nao tiangong),another film inspired by Journeys to the West (the first seven chapters this time) was available again on the international film circuit in a 3D restoration produced by Technicolor, in collaboration with Chinese filmmakers Su Da and Chen Zhihong. Chinese animation has a long and glorious history, with the first “cartoon”, Uproar in the Art Studio (Zhiren daoluan ji) authored by the Wan Brothers in Shanghai in 1926. Under Japanese occupation, they produced the first animated feature, Princess Iron Fan (Tieshan gongzhu, 1941), which was based on the adventures of one of the most beloved characters of Journeys to the West, Sun Wukong the Monkey King.

Wars and revolutions put a halt to this activity, but, in 1957, the Communist government created the Shanghai Animation Studio, and in the following decade, a real “golden age” of animation, 103 films were made. Uproar in Heaven was produced between 1961 and 1964, by one of the Wan brothers, Laiming, and his team; the second part was directed by a talented female animator, Tang Cheng. Banned during the Cultural Revolution, the film was eventually released at the end of the 1970s, won major international prizes and had an extremely successful run in more than 50 countries.

In the novel, the Monkey King tricks the Dragon King out of an invincible staff, then travels to Heaven where, to neutralise him, the Celestial Emperor offers him a third-rate bureaucratic position. Miffed, he starts a rebellion against the gods. The contemporary readers of the novel were able to decipher not-so-veiled allusions to the imperial structure of power, and, at the end of Chapter 7, it seemed as if the Monkey King had lost: his punishment was to be trapped under a mountain for 500 years. In Chapter 13, however, he reappeared to become the most enthusiastic disciple of the monk Xuanzang in his mythical journey to India.

For post-1949 animators, the Monkey King became a sort of proletarian hero fighting an antiquated feudal power, the smart little guy standing up against the bullies; with the help of an army of small monkeys trained in martial arts (and exquisitely drawn) he managed to defeat Heaven, and live happily every after. The original film – 130,000 hand-drawn ink illustrations in vibrant colours – was an enchantment, but it had faded. The restoration itself was masterminded by Tom Burton (responsible, among other, for the restoration of Jacques Tati’s Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot) with Pierre Routhier responsible for the conversion to 3D. The main issue was the aspect ratio. In the 1960s, Uproar in Heaven was shot in the classical ratio of 1.5:1, while now the standard is 1.85:1. Cropping the image was out of the question; so the team spent painstaking hours reconstructing “the missing part” of the screen, which, in many cases, was just a continuation of the action or the field of vision whose representation had been limited by the smaller ratio. For the 3D effects, Routhier came up with the idea of superimposing layers upon layers, as in children’s pop-up books. This respectful, frame-by-frame restoration/conversation, now titled The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven 3D, elegantly manages to preserve the magic and the humorous innocence of the original masterpiece.

Displaced Women

Memories Look at Me

The only other entry of the Dragons and Tigers Competition that I saw was Song Fang’s remarkable first feature, Memories Look at Me (Jiyi wangzhe wo). Produced by Jia Zhangke’s company, the film had won the Best First Feature prize in Locarno and was on its way to the New York Film Festival where it garnered more positive reviews. A young woman in her thirties, Song herself appears in Memories, the fictional reconstruction of a trip she took to visit her elderly parents in Nanjing. Chinese cinema aficionados may recognise her warm, quiet, yet seductive presence: she was the Chinese film student hired by Juliette Binoche to take care of her son in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Flight of the Red Balloon (Le Voyage du ballon rouge, 2007).

A graduate of both INSAS in Brussels and the Beijing Film Academy, Song knows how to permeate the simplest image with a calm interplay of light and shadow, conveying complex emotions as in a Flemish painting. Even though the filmmaker, her parents and her immediate circle (brother, niece, neighbours, family friends) play themselves, the film is entirely scripted – an apparatus that echoes Liu Jiayin’s radical experiments in the Oxhide cycle (an artistic affinity acknowledged in the credits). Here also, generational gap is at the core of the cinematic enquiry, but while Liu, sharing close quarters with her parents, explores the comical aspects of a love drenched in permanent irritation, Song, who lives miles away, faces the nostalgic realisation that her parents are getting older in-between each visit. With a fixed camera, she films the ordinary details of the modest apartment, the lace cover on the couch, the little bathroom, the kitchen, but mostly, signs of aging: wrinkles on a once-beautiful face; the exhausted body of a retired medical doctor taking a nap on the couch; the parents asleep in their bed, unaware of their daughter’s gaze.

“Do you think you are getting old?” Song asks bluntly, but tenderly, to her mother. Yet, for the latter, it is the daughter who is getting old – past thirty, not married, living alone. Song gracefully wards off her mother’s concerns, not without exuding a muted sadness at the impossibility of conveying what her life in Beijing is made of. And so, instead, she listens – the stories of babies born, young girls growing up, old men dying, women with terminal cancer, sickly neighbours who need to be looked after – she modestly inserts herself in this continuum of life and death, part of it and yet an outsider. You can’t go home again, you can’t take them with you.

All Apologies

The VIFF also welcomed the return of directors that had shown work in the previous editions, such as former Dragons and Tigers Winner Emily Tang, whose third feature, All Apologies (Ai de tishen), shot in and around the southern metropolis of Guilin, prefecture of the autonomous region of Guangxi, is a subtle study of the subterranean way two couples are tragically connected through the death of a child. Tang’s work has consistently demonstrated an obsession with people who are kept in the margins, yet tantalisingly close to “making it”. As in Perfect Life (Wan mei sheng huo, 2009) this tension is expressed topographically as well as in terms of class difference. Yonggi (Cheng Taisheng) has risen through the ranks and is now a construction foreman, spending weeks on faraway construction sites, while his wife, Yun Zhen (Liang Jing), is dutifully raising their mischievous young son. Yonggi likes to think of himself as a boss, but, as one bloody fight against his employers’ goons proves it, he is just a hired hand, a puppet in the hands of the new bourgeoisie that is redesigning China’s cityscapes. The gauge of his social success, his hope for the future, lie in the possibility in getting his son admitted to a top high school.

Yonggi’s former driver, a hothead called Heman (Gao Jin) runs a tiny grocery store with his beautiful wife Qiaoyu (Yang Shuting) and their little girl. They sometimes make deliveries to Yun Zhen’s house, which Heman resents. This fragile equilibrium is destroyed when tragedy strikes. In his sorrow, in his rage, Yonggi is convinced that a life is “owed” to him, and that he is entitled to take what he wants or needs. And Qiaoyu is no less convinced that it is her duty to “pay” for her husband’s mistake and misfortune.

With Hong Kong filmmaker William Kwok (author of the moody Darkness Bride/You Gou, 2003) responsible for the art direction, the décors offer a palette of ochres, browns and greys, dusty streets, dirt roads, modest domestic spaces and dimly lit interiors that contrast with the radiant southern light. Spatial dislocation charters the emotional trajectory of the characters: Yonggi keeps going back and forth on his motorcycle from the construction site to the city; a dramatic turn is reached when he enters Heman’s house, and from then on, the action follows the progressive displacement of the two women. Qiaoyu leaves her home and eventually ends up in a small apartment overlooking the river. Yun Zhen, who wants to move closer to her husband, finds another woman living with him. Here the emotions are conveyed by the way Tang shoots and edits the surroundings, as the actors’ performances are remarkably subdued, like an internal fire. Deprived of reverse angle, Yun Zhen’s point of view inside the apartment by the river is a poignant metaphor for her sorrow, as Guilin’s train station becomes a signifier for Qiaoyu’s loss.

Co-written with Han Jie (Walking on the Wild Side/Lai xiao zi, 2006; Mr. Tree/Hello! Shu Xian Sheng, 2011), All Apologies delves into issues that have long concerned Emily Tang: the changing relationships between men and women in contemporary China, which the mise en scène brings forth through a wealth of details, gestures, off-screen gazes and small moments.

Love’s Labours Lost

The Love Songs of Tiedan

Another VIFF alum is Hao Jie, whose first feature, the black comedy Single Man (Guanggun’er, 2010) heralded an original new voice in Chinese indies. A native of Gujiagou village in the Northwestern province of Hebei, Hao graduated from the Beijing Film Academy but has remained loyal to his peasant roots. Like Single Man, his second feature, The Love Songs of Tiedan (Mei Jie) is shot in a dirt-poor village (this time in another Northwestern province, the Shanxi, at a galloping distance from Inner Mongolia), and is acted mostly by non-professionals, in particular the charismatic Feng Si, a practitioner of the er ren tai, a form of bawdy folk singing practiced for centuries in these mountainous regions. Again, Hao Jie films male desire, and this second feature is more ambitious than his first, covering several decades, and encompassing a range of cinematic and visual styles from ethnomusicology to musical to comedy to expressionism. Hao pushes further the envelope of romantic longing and follows the effects of an erotic obsession in the life of a young peasant. As a young boy, Tiedan was very fond of a pretty neighbour, “Sister May” (the “Mei Jie” of the Chinese title); she used to feed him from her own mouth, and sleep in the same bed, without wearing any panties. Freud has written volumes about the crystallisation of desire caused by such circumstances; Hao’s profound originality is to uncover similar unconscious figures among impoverished peasants. Sister May is the pupil and the singing partner of Tiedan’s father, a man so devoted to er ren tai that he will get into serious trouble during the Cultural Revolution for practicing a “feudal” form of entertainment. Sister May has a boorish husband who begets her (or maybe not?) three daughters, claims her as she is hiding in Tiedan’s parents house and eventually takes her on the other side of the mountain, to the Mongolian border.

Years pass. Tiedan, who had sworn to marry Sister May when he grows up, meets her First Daughter upon the family’s return from Inner Mongolia… and she is a dead ringer for the woman who so fascinated him when he was a 6 year-old. It is love at first sight, and, now that the Cultural Revolution is over, Tiedan, who has learnt er ren tai from his father, can freely sing his desire from the top of the mountains, while Hao Jie’s camerawork literally makes the earth move. His love is returned, but, inexplicably, a very conflicted Sister May refuses the marriage, and offers her daughter to a Mongolian herdsman. Tiedan becomes crazy with grief; a shaman is summoned, who seems to imply that the poor boy is paying for the sins of his father, who may have had an illicit encounter with Sister May. As a cure, Tiedan is offered Second Daughter, a mute, in marriage. He has to be dragged through the ceremony and refuses to perform his conjugal duty. He joins a troupe of itinerant er ren tai singers, including a female impersonator, Hu Hu, and wanders the countryside for years, eventually becoming a local star and leader of the troupe. Back home, his mute wife raises the daughter he reluctantly managed to produce.

Sister May’s Third Daughter, a wilful and modern teenager, decides to leave home (in a violent, yet comical scene in which her angry father asks her to take off the clothes he had put on her back) to join the er ren tai troupe which, by then (in a distant echo of Jia Zhangke’s Platform) is in competition with Canto-pop and sexy performances of girls in bikini. Tiedan is among the cadres auditioning her. After a few seconds, he spectacularly loses his balance, toppling the boom box and the table at which he was sitting. Third Daughter looks exactly like her mother and her older sister.

In a triple part, the talented actress Ye Lan embodies both Tiedan’s “obscure object of desire” and an erotic agency of her own – a continuation of her role as the trafficked bride in Single Man who was bold enough to pick her own husband. She is both the abutment and the conduit of Tiedan’s desire – what he will always want, but what also resists him, as magnificently expressed in the audition scene. With a rare maturity, Hao Jie works on the (visual and musical) texture of desire itself as well as on the inevitability of loss (Lacan’s impasse sexuelle). Both protagonists want something from the other – but not the same thing, and certainly not at the same time. It’s too early for one, too late for the other. Desire never dies… and neither do regrets. What is left is music.

When Night Falls

One of the high points of the Festival was the vivacious discussion that followed the screening of When Night Falls (Wo hai you hua yao shuo), that, due to the legal troubles it caused its director, Ying Liang, has become a cause célèbre on the international circuit and in civil rights circles, and had recently received two Golden Leopard awards in Locarno, one for Best Director, and one for Best Actress. Currently (and fortunately) based in Hong Kong on a teaching gig at the Academy of Performing Arts, Ying accepted a commission to direct one of the “three short films by digital filmmakers” which the Jeonju International Film Festival (South Korea) has been producing every year. Inspired by a real life story (already the subject of a documentary by Ai Weiwei), the film grew to be 70 minute long. In 2007, Yang Jia, a young Beijinger on a trip to Shanghai, was harassed and beaten up by the police for driving an unlicensed bicycle. What follows is unclear; according the authorities, Yang Jia went into a police station and knifed 6 policemen to death. This, in turn, found an echo among people angry with a corrupt and repressive police, and Yang Jia became an Internet hero.

Meanwhile, his mother, Wang Jingmei, was kidnapped in her home in Beijing and locked under an assumed name in a mental hospital for months, which prevented her from acting as legal representative for her son. Ying Liang focuses the fiction on the mother, played by independent producer Nai An, (3) and starts at the moment she is released from the psychiatric ward, the day before her son’s scheduled execution. At home a letter is waiting for her, sent by the Shanghai court about how to organise her son’s defence. She is brought to Shanghai for a mock hearing, followed by a bunch of media activists with DV cameras. We don’t see her during her brief visit to the cell. Yang Jia is a hole in the filmic texture, an absence in the diegesis.

What Ying Liang shows are these moments in-between, these moments of waiting that amount to nothing, an approach that echoes the radical strategy of juxtaposition explored by Godard in Six Fois Deux (1976): “The AND is diversity, multiplicity, destruction of identities. The door to the factory is not the same, when I enter, and then when I exit, and then when I pass in front of it after I lost my job. The wife of the man sentenced to death is not the same, before and after… The AND is neither/nor, it’s always in-between, it’s a boundary… a vanishing line, a line in flux, yet you don’t see it…” (4)

In earlier films such as The Other Half (Ling Yiban, 2006) or Condolences (Weiwen, 2009), Ying Liang had proven a master in composing complex cinematic spaces, shot frontally and without reverse angle, of exploring the depth of field through precisely designed one-shot sequences. A similar rigour is at work here, yet permeated with a sense of melancholy, a minimalist aesthetic that renders Wang Jingmei’s solitude as the moments before are coming to an unavoidable end, and the moments after are inconceivable. Ying Liang’s does not suture his shots via a traditional découpage because matching them does not make sense. It’s impossible to reconcile the idea of a son alive with that of a son dead, so he shows the mother in bubbles of congealed time, invested in futile pursuits, as in the moment when, drowned in darkness, she calls a woman she does not know on the phone to ask her to be a character witness for her son.

It is in another visual terrain that Ying Liang locates the off-screen, as he montages the fictional parts of the film with computer screen captures and postings from the Internet (including an image of Ai Weiwei carrying a cat and accusing the Shanghai police of miscarriage of justice). Here again, the different textures don’t match; Yang Jia’s internet persona and the re-staging of his mother’s private sorrow belong to different spaces. Radical at an aesthetic level, this wilfully imperfect juxtaposition was also a bold move that probably further irritated officials, as the use of the Internet is a highly sensitive topic in China. The situation is volatile, and as I am writing these lines, after botched attempts at stopping the screening in Jeonju, Chinese authorities have threatened to detain Ying Liang if he returned to China. It would be a pity, however, if the brouhaha caused by the case presented viewers from seeing When Night Falls for what it is: a generous reflection on the nature of the visual in our digital times.

The City’s Margins… and Beyond

Beijing Flickers

Vancouver also screened Beijing Flickers (Youzhong), the thirteenth film of sixth generation auteur Zhang Yuan. In 1992, VIFF had been one of the launching pads of Mama, the first Chinese independent movie since 1949. Zhang continued to produce an audacious mixture of documentary and fiction with a series of films produced on the margin of legality, such as Beijing Bastards (Beijing za zhong, 1993) and Sons (Erzi, 1996) and directed the first Chinese gay film, East Palace West Palace (Dong gong xi gong, 1997). In 1999, with Seventeen Years (Guo nian hui jia, 1999), he was one of first sixth generation directors to successfully collaborate with the official studio system – which eventually gave him access to bona fide stars, such as Xu Jinglei for I Love You (Wo ai ni, 2003) or Jiang Wen and Vicky Zhao Wei for Green Tea (Lü cha, 2003). In many ways, Beijing Flickers marks a return to form as well as a return to the inspiration of his earlier work. A commission from UCCA, one of the major contemporary art galleries in Beijing, prompted him to draw a portrait of the 20- and 30-something generation. From the hundreds of young people he contacted via Weibo, the Chinese twitter, he retained ten, carefully recorded their stories on video, and made still photographs of them as well. In turn, the stories became the basis for the screenplay of the new film, in which the sitters were cast as non-professional actors.

As in his early work, Zhang is fascinated by the youth subculture, musicians playing in obscure bands, dreamers arriving to the capital and living in the fringe of the art world, people trapped in underpaid jobs. In the last 20 years, though, disparities between rich and poor have become more brutal. And Zhang himself is no longer this skinny young man who didn’t have enough to eat. In a discrete moment, he stages himself as a drunken and disabused “big brother” that a penniless young driver, Wang Ming, has to bring back home – one generation of misfits looking at the other in the eyes with gentle irony.

The film builds an arc, starting in what seems to be an institutional hallway, with San Bao (Duan Bowen) saying, with a clear voice “I”. Then, in a voice over (which is supposed to be his, but in which we recognise that of Zhang Yuan), he recounts that, in that moment, he was breaking a spell of silence of 127 days during which he had refused to talk. The film ends up on a surprise, bittersweet ending, in the same hallway, with Sao Bao, shot from a different angle repeating “I”, accepting both responsibility and hope for something that is beyond his scope. Dumped by his girlfriend for a rich man, he had descended into a self-destructive spiral and, after attempting to eat broken glass, landed in the hospital next to Shi Shi (Xiao Shi), a narcissistic drag queen addicted to cosmetic surgery and poetry. He remains friends with Shi Shi, and hangs out aimlessly with his friend the driver Wang Ming, who has girl problems of his own. At a bar, he meets the female singer Youzi (Li Xinyun), who gets kicked out by the musicians of her band as soon as a potential record company “suggests” a replacement singer, and Youzi’s roommate, Su Mo, a young professional woman, who gets horribly jilted by her corporate boss/lover. Zhang depicts his protagonists, from their foibles to their way of walking, with intimacy and generosity; the character of Shi Shi, for example, is quite astonishing in a culture still permeated with (mostly negative) clichés about queerness.

Zhang Yuan is his own DP for most of the scenes, and his camera shoots Beijing in a symphony of browns and greys, from unusual angles – hovels, ruins, deserted pubs, train tracks, underground parking lots, the scars of unchecked development done at the expense of the working poor. Physical violence is rampant, from Sao Bao’s suicidal tendencies, to his bloody fight with Youzi’s ex-musicians, to a daring scene in which Su Mo assaults her former lover in front of his wife and kid and partially undresses him.

When the Bough Breaks

With When the Bough Breaks (Wei chao), female documentarist Ji Dan offered another vision of marginalised existences in Beijing, by following, vérité-style, the lives of a family of squatters on the outskirts of Beijing. As in her previous The Spiral Staircase of Harbin (2009), Ji gets very close to her subjects, and captures, in what seems real time, nondramatic moments of everyday existence: cooking, cleaning, doing homework, sifting through a landfill to retrieve useable garbage, looking for a job, family quarrels. From this patchwork, a dramatic line slowly emerges. Drunk most of the time, the father is a useless tyrant, the mother is no help, and the real adults of the family are the teenage twin sisters Ling and Xia, who have decided they will put their younger brother Gang through an elite high school, so he can enter college. Xia develops this commitment to the scholarly success of the family son (a treasured Chinese value), to the point of obsession, jeopardising her own future, bitterly quarrelling with her father, unable to see that her brother does not have “the right stuff”, let alone the desire, to attend a prestigious college.

Three Sisters

Fascinating in its insight into the small moments that make up the family relationships, in its depiction of the way patriarchy perpetuates itself through the misguided efforts of women – the film meanders some, but then so does real life. In one of these coincidences that, again, are critics’ heaven, When the Bough Breaks ends on an image very similar to the last shot of Wang Bing’s Three Sisters (San zi mei), the second Chinese documentary of the festival: the two sisters walking away from the camera, toward an indistinct space and an uncertain future.

Cinematic cultures sometimes find an anchor, a gauge to measure their accomplishments and their aspiration, a critical gaze. In Italy, Pasolini once played this role, and in Germany it was Fassbinder. Since West of the Track (Ti Xie Qu, 2003), Wang Bing has fulfilled a similar function in the new Chinese documentary movement. West of the Tracks had also been hailed as one of the first films to accurately document post-industrialism in China and the transformation of its urban culture. Now that “urban movies” are a dime a dozen, that, since 2011, China counts more city dwellers than peasants, Wang Bing turns his camera against the tide, toward the forgotten of the forgotten, those who had silently moved Chinese history for years without anything to show for it. At a time of “speedy modernisation” he reminds us that, in the majority of the country, there are still people without running water, cell phones, and even enough to eat properly.

Wang Bing spent several weeks in the mountains of Yunnan province, near the Tibetan border, mostly in a small village perched at 3,200 metres. Three little sisters, Yingying (10 years old), Zhenzhen (6 years old) and Fenfen (4 years old), are left to fend for themselves, vaguely taken care of by an auntie who does not have enough food for her own family. Their mother is gone, their father, Shunbao, works in a small city accessible only through a long walk and a rickety bus ride. Day in and day out, the little girls collect peat and dung to make a fire, tend the sheep, wash their own clothes at the water pump and perform all sorts of chores. Zhenzhen’s and Fenfen’s hair is cropped short because they are infected with lice, their little feet bleed when they wear plastic boots without socks, and Yingying always wear the same hoodie, with “Lovely Diary” (in English) embroidered in the back. The hoodie seems to have a special meaning for the girl – a present from one of her missing parents? We’ll never know. While her little sisters, in spite of their hard life, are playful, happy as children can be, and affectionate toward each other, Yingying is the serious one. Plagued by a constant dry cough that nobody ever alludes to, she shoulders all the responsibilities, and often appears as lost in thought.

Wang Bing and his two cameramen film the three girls intimately, at their height, encapsulating the dimensions of their world, the stubborn precision with which clothes are washed in a small plastic basin, or bedding arranged with wet and cold quilts. Scenes of peasants eating in dim interiors are contrasted with the quiet splendour of the highlands. Yingying’s emotional balance is upset when Shunbao comes to take his two younger daughters to the city with him, and entrusts the older one to her grandfather. She can go to school now, but this seems a mixed blessing, as she has difficult relationships with her classmates. She misses her little sisters.

As we are watching Yingying’s hard, but repetitive daily routine, the stillness of the landscape, the permanence of the lifestyle, as well as the crystal-clear precision of the filmmaking, give us a sense of eternal present. And Wang Bing’s magic is at work again, suggesting, behind every image, a wealth of silent emotions, a wave of historical change. Yingying will not be ten forever, erosion and redevelopment are threatening the living conditions of the peasantry… Wang Bing’s camera captures these three little girls in a state of grace, in what could be, sad to say, the best years of their lives.

Vancouver International Film Festival
27 September – 12 October 2012
Festival website: http://www.viff.org

Endnotes

  1. At first, non-waterproof EX3 and EX1 cameras, covered in plastic sheet, were used, as well as Gh2 cameras. Most of these cameras were lost at sea, so a great number of the high-contrast images kept in the film were shot later through a dozen-odd of small GoPro waterproof cameras. Contrary to what has been written about in some articles on Leviathan, most of the footage was shot by the filmmakers themselves. “We were holding the camera or had taped it to a stick we were moving around, holding tight to each other so as not to fall overboard! These ‘impossible shots’ that everybody is talking about are in fact very human. There is a human hand behind them.” Véréna Paravel, e-mail dated 26 November, 2012.
  2. Francisco Ferreira, Expresso-Atual, Lisboa, 21 July 2012, p. 23.
  3. Nai An founded the production company Dream Factory with Lou Ye in 1998; she also played the role of the gangster woman in Suzhou River (Suzhou He, 2000). She has been active in television as well.
  4. Gilles Deleuze, “Trois Questions sur Six fois deux”, Cahiers du cinéma, No 271, November 1976, pp. 11-12 (my translation; italics mine).