It rained during most of my stay at the latest Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) – a thick, persistent, almost sweet, drizzle that covered the horizon in greyish tones and gave the cityscape an air of noble melancholy. Rain was a good thing. As curators from the North Pacific will tell you, in fair weather potential spectators tend to stay outdoors. Comes rain, they return to their cinephilic habit, and you get the audience you deserve.

This year, however, they had to walk further to get their fix. Canada has taken a hit with the economic crisis, and many Vancouver theatres are closing. The seven-screen Granville 7 that had been the VIFF’s main hub since 2002 closed in November 2012. Located at the heart of the main downtown strip, between shoe manufacturer outlets, clothing shops for teenagers, porn shops, pizza parlours and restaurants, it was reclaimed at the end of its lease by the landlord that had bigger and better plans. (1) What these plans are or were is anybody’s guess, as the space stands empty, forlorn and boarded, like a stranded whale, at the corner of Granville and Smythe. The neighbourhood restaurants took a hit, losing customers in the process. In addition to the two staple locations constituted by the Pacific Cinematheque and the Vancity Theatre (where the offices of the Festival are located), the bulk of the operation was shifted several blocks away, a brisk ½ hour walk, in the Cineplex Odeon International Village, one of these modern atrocities, a multi-screen theatre buried in a shopping mall, with a substandard food court. A couple of other venues were also secured in the vicinity, but the Cineplex Odeon was the largest, the best equipped (3D projection was available) and, being new to the festival business, the most problematic.

Yet the show must go on, and the VIFF remains a high quality, thoughtfully curated showcase. Its current difficulties are symptoms of a time when cinema has to lure spectators into the unappetising confines of gigantic shopping malls and compete for their attention with other digital products. The overwhelming majority of the screenings were in DCP, about 50 in HDCAM, a few mavericks in odd formats (Blu Ray, Digital Beta, computer output for James Benning’s Stemple Pass)… and yes, four movies screened in their 35mm glory: Raya Martin and Mark Peranson’s La última película, Alicia Scherson’s Il futuro (The Future), Andrés and Luís Rodríguez’s Brecha en el silencio (Breach in the Silence) and Miguel Gomes’s short, Redemption. Let’s face it, folks, unless you go to Pordenone, this is the way it’s going to be – correction: this is the way it already is.

Digital or not, cinema is still faced with the question of whether it is possible to represent the world. As digital media make it easier to record an image, but even easier to tamper with it, the tropes and requirements of “photographic realism” are becoming evanescent. Some films take a stance – against the unnecessary proliferation of images – against the lazy poaching or downloading of exotic “views” – by deliberately limiting their means of expression or their field of vision. These are the films I want to talk about.

Rain: Small Spaces as Metaphors       

Our Sunhi

Our Sunhi

Nobody does it better than Hong Sang-soo: take an achingly defined space, boredom no objection: a resort town, a university campus and its surroundings, a neighbourhood in a big city. Sprinkle it with a few places (hotels, student housing) containing a bed, and with a number of eateries and watering holes offering fried chicken, cappuccino, beer or soju. Narrow pedestrian streets, where lone passers-by can hear the sound their own steps, in sync with the confusion of their hearts. A public park here, a beach there. Spring a small number of characters, male and female, and make them interact through a series of repetitive, quasi-musical patterns of half-expressed sexual attraction, ill-defined rejection, bustling insecurities and latent jealousy. Stir, mix and serve cold. You never thought it could be that funny, yet that poignant. In its elegant, exquisite, rigorous economy of means, Uri Sunhi (Our Sunhi) may be the apex of Hong’s neo-Korean screwball genre.

Beautiful, elusive Wui Sunhi (Yumi Jeong, already the heroine of Hong’s Ok-hui-ui yeonghwa [Oki’s Movie, 2010]) returns to her alma mater after disappearing for a year or two from the not-so-enchanted circle of academics, students and former students who can’t break the umbilical cord. Her goal, so it seems, is to ask her former film teacher, Choi Donghyun (Kim Sangjung), for a reference letter so she can apply to US universities. Choi is sceptical – shouldn’t she make movies instead? – and quite nonchalant about the letter. The two meet on a public bench on campus, and when the letter is delivered, it’s comically inappropriate – stressing, among other things, Sunhi’s “reserve” and “lack of courage” – so Sunhi requests a rewrite, and Choi obliges her.

Meanwhile, Sunhi reconnects with a former boyfriend-turned-filmmaker, Kim Munsu (Lee Seongyun), and from their increasingly drunken conversation in a snotty fried chicken joint, we understand that Munsu has made a film that may be (or not) based on his relationship with Sunhi. The reality of the affair, as well as what really happened between Sunhi and Professor Choi, is not what Hong is interested in dissecting; his film brilliantly remains at the level of the effects of language – that are also effects of desire. When a second, completely different letter of recommendation is produced, an unexpected confession of some long-term, secret attraction that Choi may have (or not) harboured for Sunhi emerges. Was he forgetful of this old passion when he wrote the first, contemptuous letter? (When Sunhi reminds him that he squeezed her hand once outside the Library, he does not remember… “Did you do that to the other girls?” ask Sunhi.) Or did he manufacture a false memory to muster the inspiration to pen a complimentary text? It does not matter, now Choi is smitten, Munsu wants to get Sunhi back, and a common friend of both of them, filmmaker Jaehak (Jeong Jaeyeong) who has found it easier to leave his wife (described by Choi as “lovely” and “great”) in a faraway town to enjoy the carefree lifestyle of a creative bachelor, also reveals he carries a torch for Sunhi.

Having created this unholy triangle of male desire around Sunhi, Hong has a lot of fun – as playfully indicated by the green-on-yellow day-glow credits and the ironical tune composed by his usual collaborator Jeong Yongjin that punctuates the narration – playing with the variations of this geometrical figure. A sappy song reiterating melancholia about the innocence of young love in a lost “hometown” is heard three times, first at the chicken place, and twice in the Café Arirang where Munsu meets Jaehak, and later Jaehak drinks with Sunhi… and where the young hostess, who seems to know all these people well, orders fried chicken to soften the effect of alcohol. Twice Jaehak is called through the window of his second floor apartment, first by Munsu, then by Choi. Twice, after sharing lots of alcohol with a man (Choi, then Jaehak), Sunhi seems to be drunkenly throwing herself at him. But, uncomfortable at taking advantage of her state, the man regretfully peels away (this is one Hong Sang-soo film in which nobody goes to bed with anybody).

Our Sunhi is also one of Hong’s more cutting explorations of what Lacan called the “discourcourant” – the ceaseless recycling of words, phrases, sentences in everyday conversation, the endless circulation of trivialities that may (or may not) be a mask for something for profound. All men describe Sunhi as “having a great artistic sense… brave… innocent” (or any combination of the above). People keep talking about “digging deeper to find out who [they] really [are].” Functioning like a black hole at the centre of the triangle, Sunhi’s desire remains occulted. “I don’t want to date men anymore. I just want to study.” This would sound like a reasonable proposition, considering how self-absorbed Sunhi’s suitors are, but then, Hong’s dry wit does not let her off so easily, and twists her words into a vintage Garbo moment: “I just want to be alone.”

The most acute joke comes when Hong delocalises the action into another self-referential, enclosed space, the park surrounding Seoul’s Changgyeong Palace. Built in 1483, the Palace survived several Japanese invasions, and has become an icon of Korean pride. It is also a perfect site for the bucolic enjoyment of early autumn leaves, meditation, and thwarted romantic pursuits (as Hong’s previous films have demonstrated). Sunhi repeats earlier gestures, reading the second reference letter (which, this time, is quite positive) on a bench in the park. Choi calls her cell and announces he will meet her there, in spite of her reluctance. When she slips out to go to the bathroom, Choi meets Jaehak and Munsu who have also come there in the hope of meeting Sunhi, as this is a favourite spot of hers. After a few snippets of awkward male conversation, the trio enter the restroom together. As they come in “their” Sunhi gets out of the ladies room – never to be seen again…

If the psychosexual hang-ups staged by Hong define our contemporary landscape, then it is the world itself, at least a metonymic version of it, that his mise en scène offers us as a series of minute, precisely crafted fragments that overlap and contradict themselves. He recounts small moments that don’t quite add up to a “story”; his limited settings, used in a combination of repetitive variations become a sort of minimalist aleph, akin to a Chinese snuff bottle on whose inside a detailed landscape is painted.

Stray Dogs

Stray Dogs

Working out of the confines of another Asian metropolis, Tsai Ming-liang operates a similar alchemy with Jiao you (Stray Dogs), by investing even more obscure corners of Taipei, the city he had so well represented in some of his earlier masterpieces. If Taipei is a metaphor for the world, then this world in increasingly breaking down, and now we are seeing it from the point of view of its most marginalised population. Lee Kang-sheng, his beautiful face chiselled with the gravitas of middle age, and his two young children are homeless and live in the underbelly of the city, in places you would never have thought to venture, where post-industrial ruins with their debris and blackened walls, intersect with strange patches of countryside, wild grass and unchecked streams of water. I was told that these places do exist in Taipei, and indeed in Stray Dogs Tsai performs a magic trick comparable to that of his short Walker (2012): the coexistence of two different planes, the real and the surreal, that also offers a fleeting glimpse into the cryptic meanders of the protagonist’s minds.

At the level of realism, Tsai minutely explores what being homeless entails: where do you go to wash your hair, to pee, how can you gather food? The children make use of supermarket restrooms to clean up, and grab food samples to eat. The father holds a job as a human billboard advertising chic real estate. He stands at busy street corners with a female colleague, neither of them exchanging a word, and as this is Tsai Ming-liang’s Taipei, it rains a lot over their unprotected bodies. As usual, Lee Kang-sheng’s genius is to be able to suggest interiority without much dialogue, through his body language. Yet, he remains an opaque presence. No back story, no memory, no explanation. He is a cypher caught in the eternal present of a city old enough to have post-industrial ruins, but trapped in a succession of moments that don’t add up – such as modern capitalism.

There is a woman… or women?… in the equation. A figure of mother surrogate and possible/impossible love interest for Lee Kang-sheng. Three actresses playing the same part, or three women who, without narrative logic, take care of the children, wash the little girl’s hair in a public restroom, open their homes to the family, share a stolen moment of paradoxical intimacy with the father: Yu Li-ching, Yang Kuei-mei and Chen Chiang-shyi, who have all appeared in previous films by Tsai.

As in Walker, Tsai elongates time; working in digital, he can indulge even better in his taste for long takes, and the film abounds in precious moments that reformulate Laura Mulvey’s classic tension between “visual pleasure” and “narrative cinema.” (2) In spite of the obvious pleasure Tsai has had filming Lee Kang-sheng since he first discovered him in a video arcade for the shooting of Xiao Hai (Boys, 1991), these moments of “visual pleasure” are not organised around a sexual economy, but rather as an ongoing “conversation with god”. In the short piece of the same title, commissioned in 2001 by the Jeonju Film Festival and that was Tsai’s first foray into digital, he was already trying to track down the traces of the divine in the most mundane, but also most dirty, aspects of contemporary Taipei. (3) His vision has become more sombre, but the slowing down of time is opening up a space for meditation in the spectators’ minds (or hearts), and all those I have spoken to have a favourite moment that they can’t get out of their mind. Mine would be the 13 minute-long shot in which Lee Kang-sheng stands behind Chen Chiang-shyi. They are framed from the shoulders up in some derelict building whose walls have been damaged by rain or flood; very little happens – sometimes Lee, suggested as an alcoholic in the diegesis, takes a sip from a bottle, at one point a tear trickles down on Chen’s beautiful face – no words are exchanged, but the romantic tension is palpable, the visual composition powerful, the performance of the two actors so accurate that the duration makes sense: there was no other way to shoot that scene.

There are very few directors left in the world who are willing and/or able, to quote an insightful phrase by Serge Daney, to “tell stories in which the characters walk into life backward” (4) – as it had been done at one moment in history by films such as Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960) and Zurlini’s Cronoca familiare (1962). Decades later, Tsai slightly changes the equation, and shows people who are walking into life at a completely different speed than their surroundings (Walker being the purest expression of this). The slowness of their movements, as well as the length of the shots, indicate the split between them and the world. Mainstream culture has words for these people: they are homeless, underprivileged, lumpen, mentally challenged, visionaries, society’s rejects, pre-industrial, deviants, dreamers, mystics, misfits, madmen, poets… They will never catch up, now we know this. Tsai listens to their footsteps, espouses their rhythm. If, for Lacan, feminine jouissance was the hidden face of god, for Tsai people who walk into life too slowly are the secret traces of god in our speeded-up world.

Mouton

Mouton

Another challenging, yet exhilarating entry delving into the hidden face of society was Mouton (Sheep) the first feature by the French duo writers/directors/editor Gilles Deroo and Marianne Pistone, shot in grainy 16mm, like vintage vérité. There are plenty of dogs, but no sheep in the film; Mouton is the nickname of the main character, Aurélien Bouvier (David Mérabet) and nobody knows how he got it. The opening sequence plunges us straight into an arresting ambiguity between “reality” and “fiction”. A 17 year-old boy is in a room surrounded by his mother and a social worker who reads the legal document granting him legal emancipation. The mother (incompetent, alcoholic, disturbed?) is quite upset about this, she protests her love for her son, refuses to sign. The scene is messy, painful, we feel like voyeurs, we want to leave the room as soon as possible.

When we do, Mouton has become a restaurant worker in the small seaside town of Courseulles-sur-mer in Normandy (population less than 5,000) whose elegiac settings determine the scope of the film: everything that happens outside the town will remain off-screen. Mouton is a good-natured kid, pleasant, hard-working, and his colleagues, after a hazing session in which they take turns to spit on him, take to him, welcome him in their circle. Here also the camera functions in a semi-documentary manner, following the gestures and everyday lives of the restaurant staff. Their existence is dull but not unhappy. For Mouton, it’s a piece of heaven. He has a room of his own, makes extra money by taking care of people’s homes and pets, has buddies with whom he can hang out and have fun. A pretty girl, Audrey (Audrey Clément) is hired as a waitress, heightening the restaurant’s libidinal climate and convivial rivalry. Guess what, it’s Mouton who dates her, brings her to his room and is filmed in tender erotic foreplay with her. Then, out of nowhere, something very ugly happens. Mouton is now twenty, and he’s getting ready to go to the pier with his buddies and his girlfriend for the Feast of Sainte Anne. As the small gang is horsing around, flirting, eating, drinking or… pissing in the sea, the unexpected happens, literally slicing the film in two.

Mouton disappears from the diegesis, he’s talked about, even appears in a newspaper picture, but the film now focuses on those who remain in Courseulles-sur-mer. In a scene that functions like a splinter in the midst of this desolate landscape, two men have sex with an itinerant prostitute in her car. They fall asleep together; when the men wake up, one of them is tempted to steal the hooker’s purse; his companion stops him. They exit. Played by Michael Mormentyn, the only performer to have acted in a film before (Hiver (les grands chats), Deroo and Pistone’s 2008 featurette), Mimi works in a kennel, and tracks the stray dogs that roam about the town’s outskirts. Metaphor? After Mouton’s disappearance, Mimi married Louise (Cindy Dumont), a strong, big-boned woman. She now has a baby, she waits for the bus, runs into an old acquaintance, they promise to stay in touch, we know they won’t. She writes a letter to Mouton: “I will never forget you.” Due to its localisation in working class Northern France, and its commitment to realism, Mouton has elicited comparisons with early Bruno Dumont’s films. Yet the radicalness of Deroo and Pistone’s structure, the random and elliptical quality of the events they capture, the use of repetition in the voice over at the juncture between the two parts, give a markedly original flavour to this chronicle of an invisible life.

Interlude: Puppets in the Killing Fields

Four Ways to Die in my Hometown

Four Ways to Die in my Hometown

Like Stray Dogs and Mouton, poet/journalist Chai Chunya’s first feature Wo Guxiang de Sizhing Siwang Fangshi (Four Ways to Die in my Hometown) uses a limited space (a village in Longxi County, Gansu Province) to represent the world; his freedom of tone, his sense of serendipitous poetry, make him a worthy colleague of Tsai Ming-liang and Deroo/Pistone. Stringing together a series of loosely connected events, Chai articulates them through the four basic elements of Buddhism (a belief he shares with Tsai) – wind, earth, fire and water – that divide the film in chapters. Traversed by the Silk Road, the Great Wall and the Yellow River, Gansu, due to its extreme North-eastern location, once had an important strategic value: the famous Jade Gate/Yumen Pass is located there; now it is mostly surrounded by the “autonomous regions” of Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Ningxia and Xinjiang and has large concentrations of ethnic minorities, such as Tibetans, Hui Chinese, Uyghurs and Mongolians: its culture is markedly different from the mainstream Han Chinese. It is also still 73% rural, against the grain of the huge rural exodus currently experienced by China; yet, slowly but surely villages are being emptied, and traditional lifestyles disappear

The long pre-credit sequence introduces us to a world defined by its own rules, a mixture of magic and realism – even though Chai refuses this distinction (“magic in the eyes of other people is realism to me,” he says). (5) On the grey banks of the Yellow River, a man (Li JianBin) sings a melancholy ballad, accompanied by his acoustic guitar: Flowers cannot live away from the Yellow River – So what do you worry about, my dear sister? In the horizon, a modern metallic bridge, some ugly post-socialist housing towers, a couple of neon signs. Cut to the bank: a rooster is hanging by its feet on a string. A young woman, Ga Gui (Gao WeiXia) approaches, unties and releases it. She empties her bag, picks up a notebook, tears its pages, and throws them into the river. Cut to the musician, who suddenly stops playing, looking off-screen. Back to the young woman who advances into the river and sits in the cold water. A metallic sound and mysterious images (cups from which small birds are flying float around the woman’s body…) follow, until the non-diegetic sound of a male voice is heard: “Ga Gui, through the river running in your hometown, you can thus observe your whole life.” Ga Gui gets out of the water, and, with her clothes dripping wet, starts walking on the bank, smiling to the musician as she passes him by.

Four Ways unfolds through a succession of tableaus and vignettes. Rekaya, the camel that Ga Gui’s little sister, La Mei (Liu JiaDi), had just lost, sassily blocks a deserted road; Ga Gui’s father (Chai ShuGang) has been lying for seven years in a coffin, unhappy at the state of the world, and refuses to get up. On a small opera stage, singers perform in painted faces in bright costumes. A young man steals Uncle Yang’s shadow puppets and exchanges them for a lamb. Yang (Yang GuiQing) and two of his colleagues explain in turn the cultural importance of shadow puppets: after the Great Famine of the late 1950s had decimated most of the puppet masters, after escaping labour camps and surviving starvation themselves, they learnt the craft, and contributed to the revival and the preservation of this ancient art in Gansu. Their stories are shot like a piece of performance art, but the words coming out of their mouths have the ring of recorded documentary interviews. (6) The shadow puppets are retrieved at gunpoint, the lamb returned to its original owner. On his way home, Uncle Yang meets a man who plays the suona (high-pitched Chinese oboe) lying in an open grave, and agrees to give one more shadow puppet performance. As the show is beautifully underway, with six puppets performing behind a white cloth, the curtain suddenly catches fire, the music stops, there’s nobody around anymore, just a fire in the midst of an empty plateau, and one remembers that a woman had asked for the show not to take place, for she had dreamt that the village was on fire…

It is no accident that Chai follows this sequence with another one in which ghosts are alluded to and conjured. Puppets, these artefacts from a bygone age, are stand-in for the dead. They encapsulate untold stories, conjure the invisible. Ga Gui returns to the city, and the woman who will take care of La Mei sings a mournful lament: it’s so hard to remember the past. A single tree, covered with offerings, stands in the centre of the final image.

The Missing Image

The Missing Image

Faced with a similar situation – how to conjure the invisible – Cambodian director Rithy Panh’s L’Image manquante (The Missing Image) starts on an extreme close-up of a man’s fingers, moulding a little bit of clay. The small figure of a man emerges; the fingers, having carefully crafted his features, paint him: “With earth and water, with the dead, with the rice paddies, with living hands, you can make a man, says the voice over (Randal Duc). It does not take much, it just takes will. His suit is white, his tie is black. I would like to hold him tight. He’s my father.”

Between 1958 and 1962, Mao’s Great Leap Forward triggered a major famine in China, which, coupled with political repression (internment, torture, summary executions) caused what is estimated at 45 millions deaths by the most recent studies. (7) In Cambodia, from 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge was responsible for a number of deaths that may be as high as 3.5 millions, either from starvation, exhaustion and diseases or from executions. Twenty years separate the two catastrophes, but they are connected, as the Khmer Rouge was clearly influenced by Mao’s politics, especially the methods of the Great Leap Forward. In both cases, images are missing. “Remarkably, Dikötter failed to locate any nonpropaganda photos for the book. Few are thought to exist,” notices a commentator. (8) And, as the sole survivor in his family, Panh has been haunted by the question of missing, extant, or possible images of the Khmer Rouge genocide.

At 15, in 1979, he had escaped to Thailand, and eventually ended in Paris where he studied at IDHEC Film School. He started to make documentaries about Cambodia in 1989, and his 2003 feature, S21, la machine de mort Khmere Rouge (S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine) inserted him at the heart of the contemporary debate about the possible/impossible “representation” of mass murder and genocide. Coincidentally, the same year Georges Didi-Huberman published Images malgré tout, which re-examined the polemic between Resnais, Lanzmann, Ophuls and Godard: if there were one image of the Shoah, would it be ethically permissible to show it? (9) To shoot S21, Panh asked former prison guards of the notorious death camp to recreate their actions and their deadly routines for the camera, sometimes in presence of their victims. Kaing Guek Eav (AKA Duch), who had been the head of S21, was absent from the film. Later, in Duch le maître des forges de l’enfer (Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell, 2011), Panh conducted a long interview with him as he was awaiting his second trial. Meeting Duch profoundly affected the filmmaker, and, with the help of novelist Christophe Bataille, he co-authored a book, L’élimination, a first-person narration about his experience under the Khmer Rouge. (10) In turn, Bataille co-wrote the screenplay of L’Image Manquante.

Originally, Panh wanted to make a film about the propaganda images created and circulated by the Khmer Rouge, since no images of the actual massacres exist. Then he decided to work with the young French-Cambodian sculptor Sarith Mang. “I asked him to make me a little man out of earth. And when I saw this figure emerge from the clay, I knew that ‘the missing image’ was there. I asked him to make more figures and the terrible universe of these years appeared to me. I was moved to see life coming back from the earth where the dead are lying.” (11)

As Didi-Huberman contends, we are making a mistake if we are looking for a single image to represent any mass murder: “There is no more ‘one’ image than there is a ‘unique’ word, sentence, or page for saying ‘all’ of reality.” (12) The title of the film would be slightly misleading if it didn’t represent Panh’s intellectual process. Far from being an “icon”, the image of his father produced by Mang’s fingers was the trigger of many other possible images that could be assembled into a signifying chain. So he commissioned the carving of hundreds of such figures – all in the same style, but with their colourful individualities: children learning poetry at the dinner table and women buying fruit at the market, an echo of the “sweetness of life” in Phnom Penh before 1975; soldiers arriving in the city amidst a silent, expectant population; men, women and children working in the fields, guards in uniforms, sick people dying in a makeshift hospital; and then a boy, first eleven, then growing up to be a teenager; who sees his father die for having refused the “animal food” given to him; who is assigned the job of burying the dead; who helplessly tries to help his mother when she is lying in the sordid hospital, and fails; who witnesses or hears of the death of everyone he knew and cared for; who is left alone, his childhood destroyed.

The silent, motionless figures (Panh refused to animate them) are placed in dioramas that reconstitute Phnom Penh, the fields, the labour camps. With the hands of a magician, he mixes this miniature world with archival footage – newsreels, propaganda films, even the few images of the massacre snatched away at the risk of the photographer’s lives. Painted clay figures stand against footage of the war, mixing their delicate colours with vintage black-and-white. When the cadres organise a propaganda screening in the fields, the footage of actual films commissioned by the Khmer Rouge is composited within what stands for an outdoor screen in the diorama. “Of course, we knew the actors were bad, that the film was bad. And many slept in the back, exhausted, like me.” Mang’s craft and Panh’s mise en scène make the little figures of clay seem more real than the ham actors of the movies that were “boasting our bare-handed fight against the colonial powers.” A world of memory, a world made cinematic by patient editing, is encapsulated in these miniature dioramas. This also we will not forget.

Killer: The line from A to B

A Touch of Sin

A Touch of Sin

Jia Zhangke’s Tian zhu ding (A Touch of Sin) starts on a lonely mountain road between the central provinces of Shaanxi and Shanxi. As a man, Zhou San  (Wang Baoqiang) (13) drives on a motorcycle, he is stopped by three youths armed with axes who ask him for money. Without batting an eye, the man puts his hand in his breast pocket, comes out with a gun, shoots to kill, chases and disposes of the last of his assailants (a mere, frightened teenager) and drives off. A little later, he passes by an overturned tomato truck. Tomatoes are scattered, a body lies on the ground. Another biker is stopped there, nonchalantly playing with a tomato. As he prepares to eat it, an explosion takes place behind him.

We now follow the second biker. His name is Dahai (Jiang Wu) (14) and he has an axe to grind. In his hometown of Wujinshan (Black Gold Mountain) in Shanxi, the village head has sold the community-owned coal mine to a young entrepreneur, Jiao Shengli, with the promise that the benefits would be redistributed to the inhabitants. This has not happened, Jiao has become rich instead, with a number of officials on his payroll to cover the fraud. Driving back home under the snow, Dahai stops at the miners cafeteria, where he meets a man we recognise, Han Sanming, the miner/demolition worker intent on finding his wife in Sanxia haoren (Still Life, 2006) – and a supporting actor in a few other of Jia’s films. His story continues to discreetly unfold under the main narrative fabric: he’s back to mining, possibly to pay his brother-in-law’s debts, and plans to visit his wife in the Three Gorge Areas for the New Year.

A Touch of Sin follows a multiplicity of characters that are permanently on the move. For a start, Wujinshan’s coalmine is staffed with migrant workers. When the police come to investigate the triple killings on the mountain road, a kid from Sichuan, on the lam for murder in his hometown, tries to escape. Later, in the mahjong parlour of Zhou San’s small village near Chongqing, men talk about a local girl who used to work in a factory in Dongguan, but “couldn’t make a decent living,” so ended up in a hair salon in another Pearl Delta Region town, Zhongshan, where she became HIV positive (as hair salons are all-too-often fronts for prostitution outfits). Another villager’s wife works in Tianjin, in the East. Zhou San sends money to his wife from around the country: “I earned it in Wuhan [Hubei province], and sent it from Shanxi, he says.” Later he buys three train tickets, one for Guangzhou [Guangdong], one for Yichang [Hubei] and one for Nanning [Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in southern China.] Yet, he tells his wife, he dreams of going to Burma. (Here, it seems, Jia throws an allusion to Chongqing’s planned involvement in processing the crude oil brought by the Sino-Burma pipeline…).

A married businessman, Zhang Youliang, takes a long bus ride across Hubei province to visit his lover, Zheng Xiaoyu (Zhao Tao, who has acted in all of Jia’s films since Ruijian [Platform, 2000]), near Yichang. He takes the train to Guangzhou, but she does not board with him. Instead, she returns to the “Latecomer Sauna” where she is a receptionist, and later hitches rides on mountain roads to visit her mother in her tiny village. The pick-up truck she has boarded on the way back is stopped by a gang extorting a “toll” from the driver. Their boss is an unsavoury character, played with gusto by Wang Hongwei, another familiar figure in Jia’s cinema (starting with the student film Xiaoshan Hui Jia Xiao [Shan Going Home, 1995] and his unforgettable turn as Xiao Wu [1997]).(15)

In the Pearl River Delta Region, on a train ride to Dongguan, a sullen young man from Hunan, Xiao Hui (newcomer Luo Lanshang) glances at a girl, Lianrong (Li Meng), also from Hunan, on her way back to visiting her two year-old daughter in Guangzhou. They meet again at their workplace, a gaudy night-club/brothel in the Chanping area of Dongguan, where 10% of the population is estimated to be working in the sex industry. (16) He’s a waiter, she a hooker; he falls in love, can’t bear it anymore and leaves on a motorbike taxi to take a factory job in another part of Dongguan. Then Xiaoyu takes a long trip from Hubei to Shanxi in search of a job…

The China Jia portrays is a ripped fabric of fractured, imperfect, often violent trajectories, its map drawn from the migration lines that crisscross the country. People don’t have “homes”; they live in factory dorms, sleep in their workplace, in buses or trains; they leave their hometown to swell up giant metropolises. Their “stories” are not a mere collection of “facts” – they are mirror effects, ellipses, repetitions, correspondences, palimpsests of cinematic references… Inspired by news items published in brief fragments on Weibo (the Chinese twitter), Jia had to fill the gaps, reconstruct the paths that caused the protagonists to commit murders or commit suicide. No psychology is possible, no explanation is necessary – just a labyrinth of vanishing lines – of echoes from previous stories or past forms of representation. As duly noted by most commentators, this is the first time that Jia shoots violent action sequences, and Jiang Wu’s commanding presence in the first episode, wrapping a shotgun in the tapestry of a tiger to coolly indulge in a shooting rampage has elicited comparisons with Kitano Takeshi (whose company co-produced the film) (17) – but also with Spaghetti Westerns and classic Hong Kong wuxia pian (martial arts films). Jia has been preparing to direct a wuxia pian for several years, and the English title he has chosen, A Touch of Sin, is a clear homage to King Hu’s masterpiece of the genre, A Touch of Zen (Xia nü, 1971). Wuxia heroes are downtrodden knights-errant, whose wanderings parallel those of modern migrants. (18)

The playful references to Jia’s earlier work suggest that his entire oeuvre should be read as an ongoing fresco in which each new film adds a panel, comparable to Liu Xiaodong large scroll paintings. (19) Allusions to recent Chinese independent films or to international auteurs (as Jia is a passionate cinephile) function as additional layers of the palimpsest. At the beginning of Béla Tarr’s A torinói ló (The Turin Horse, 2011) a text recounts that Nietzsche became mad when he saw a horse mercilessly beaten by its owner. Jia turns these few lines into an image: after being injured by the goons of Boss Jiao, after being humiliated by his fellow villagers, Dahai runs into a man thrashing his horse. It is at this point, one may think, that he snaps.

Jia’s mise en scène elegantly brings violence, migration and the transition between the different stories in the same act of representation – focusing more on the traces or the signs of what has happened than on the deed themselves. Having shot the village head, several petty officers and the horse owner, Dahai sits down in the back seat of Jiao Shengyi’s Maserati, parked on the ground of the factory. Jiao, wearing fashionable sunglasses, enters the car; he is framed from the back, his hands on the wheel; the barrel of Dahai’s gun protrudes from the off-screen and rests on his head. Jiao slowly turns his head. “How can we fix this? Just say.” The camera cuts to a silent Dahai, his gun extended beyond the right side of the frame, his face, sprinkled with droplets of dry blood from earlier killings, on the left. The camera follows the line of the gun, pushing Dahai off-screen, and recentering the image on the back of Jiao’s head. Two images follow in rapid succession, challenging our perception: a close up of the left side of the car, the tall factory buildings reflected on its shiny body, window and side mirror; a shot is heard, the window is shattered, blood is spurting out; then a close-up of the ground near the car: muddy soil, patches of dry grass, blood? This is followed by a quiet long shot of the car, then a medium view of Dahai inside. The driver’s seat is covered in blood, the rest of the car is splattered, Jiao’s body is off-screen. Dahai looks pensive, then smiles.

Next the camera follows the “Turin horse”, still fastened to his dead master’s cart, trotting on a road from right to left. He passes by two women in nun costumes. Three police cars, blasting their sirens, drive in the opposite direction. The horse continues and exits the frame on the left. A motorcycle enters the field from the left, then disappears. Lim Giong’s music starts on an extreme long shot of the industrial landscape, followed by a tighter long shot of the smokestacks, then we jump to another extreme long shot, of the Gorges of the Yangtze, with a ferryboat appearing on the horizon. We are back to diegetic sound with a medium shot panning left to right over the ferryboat passengers: peasants carrying poultry, men playing cards, teenagers taking each other’s pictures, people making phone calls or smoking. The camera stops on Han Sanming, who taps on the back of the man next to him: “You got a light?” The man turns back and says “No.” It’s Zhou San, the lone gunman. The camera frames him against the expanse of water in the background. We cut to a long shot of the river; the camera tilts down to the landing dock. The passengers alight, and the camera follows Zhou San till he hires a motorbike taxi to go to his village…

The transition to the next episode achieves a similar equilibrium between an abrupt eruption of violence, the elusiveness of its representation and the smooth unfolding of the narrative chain. After gunning down two people near an ATM machine, Zhou San disappears into the maze of one of Chongqing’s gigantic indoor markets. He gets out from another exit, hops onto a motorbike, and then leaves the city. On the highway, he follows a truck filled with cows on their way to the slaughterhouse, Chongqing’s skyline profiled at the horizon. In the next shot, he is in a bus at night. He requests an unscheduled stop from the driver and disappears into the darkness. The camera refocuses on another man: Zhang Youliang on his way to see Xiaoyu.

What Now? Remind Me

What Now? Remind Me

Joachim Pinto’s E Agora? Lembra-me (What Now? Remind Me) ends up with the filmmaker’s car following a truck filled with turkeys. Like the cow truck in Jia’s film, this is a humorous shot, evidencing the serendipitous absurdity of chance encounters in life… or in cinema. The man unwittingly following the ill-fated animal cargo may be a murderer, or an internationally respected filmmaker documenting a year in which he underwent an experimental HIV treatment. Jia’s China is in crisis and movement, caught in a never-ending present, and defined by sharp lines that either (violently) collide or brush against each other. To represent the world – our world – Pinto also draws a map made of multiple, overlapping itineraries, but he adds the dimension of time and memory, creating layers, depth. More akin to a spherical hologram, his cinematic space is made of curved lines, playfully brought together through the free-associative process of a video diary. For the spectator, it has the warm comfort of an embrace.

“Together, [Nuno and I] we’ve travelled the world. Or the world has seen us pass by,” says the voice over. Death is alluded to, discretely, in the title – is it a slip? Does it mean remember me rather than remind me? If it is remind me, I am alive, but my memory may be failing. And so something of me is in need of (re)construction. Medical science is helping, turning what once was a death sentence into a chronic condition, but sometimes the patient has the curious feeling, due to the effect of strong drugs, of not really inhabiting his own body.

Medical science won’t help memory, cinema will. For most of us, living, loving and working now, the images of the world are also images of cinema. So the ethics of researching, recreating, retrieving, archiving and representing these images that are going to give a sense to our experience are subjected, as evidenced by Rithy Panh’s quest, to the logic and ethics of cinema as a medium. And this has a name: montage, as the art of making the image dialectical. (20) The chain of images and sound cannot, shouldn’t, add up to a coherent, unproblematic whole. There are fractures, gaps, black holes. It may have been easier to grasp this internal necessity when we were viewing 24 images a second, with black leader in-between. Digital cinema, for some, has offered the dangerous illusion of an unbroken string of images and sounds. Pinto is one of these filmmakers that restore our faith in digital media as cinema.

Off-screen is correlative to montage. “The world has seen us pass by…” This means that Pinto and Nino Leonel, his husband, not only have seen a lot – in their tribulations from Portugal, New York, Paris, Germany, Brazil, The Azores – but also that a number of people have been witnesses to their existence. Some of them are still alive – Chema Prado, director of the Filmoteca Española; Manoel de Oliveira; their neighbour Deolinda; their old friend Jo Santos, who was undergoing the same treatment – some of them are not. How do you reconstruct the gaze cast upon you by people who can no longer see? By implicitly posing this question, the film reaches a level of sublimity.

It also involves us, our gaze as spectators and fellow human beings, hence the comfortable feeling I mentioned earlier. Pinto has been an integral part of the history of cinema since the 1980s, his travels define the terra cognita of our contemporary culture, so his story is a splinter, but also a mirror, an echo of our history. He worked with Raúl Ruiz (1941-2011) on O Território (The Territory, 1981), La Ville des pirates (City of Pirates, 1983), Point de fuite (1983) and L’île au trésor (Treasure Island, 1985); did the sound for Der Rosenkönig (The Rose King, 1986) by Werner Schroeter (1945-2010); produced two extraordinary features by the singular, cantankerous and original João César Monteiro (1939-2003), Recordações da Casa Amarela (Recollections of the Yellow House, 1989) and A Comédia de Deus (God’s Comedy, 1995) and did the sound for a number of his other films; was professionally involved (as a sound engineer, cinematographer and/or producer) with pretty much all the filmmakers who have shaped Portuguese cinema in the last three decades; and since 1988 has directed 11 features, shorts and documentaries – most of them not readily available at the moment.

As Pinto plunges in his treasure trove of visual archives, or takes us on imaginary tours to look at paintings, precious books or landscapes, some images are missing, but names, dates and facts appear in the carefully composed soundtrack. He mentions his friendship with the charismatic French theorist/filmmaker Guy Hocquenghem, first encountered in New York in the late 70s and dead of AIDS at 42 in 1988. He continues working through layers and layers of memories, allusions, snippets of sound, images captured or quoted; in one of the folds of his narration emerges, clear and sharp, a voice recording of another friend of his lost to AIDS, the genial film critic Serge Daney (1944-92), talking about the Jewish composers who escaped Nazi Germany and found themselves working for Hollywood… Another surprise awaits us when Pinto remembers, during a trip to East Germany, meeting a young student activist of the name of Angela Merkel… We often deserve whom we meet, but it does not always make sense; or rather, some encounters have different meanings that others: our lives don’t unfold through intelligible patterns, there is always something opaque in front of which we remain humbled. And the most opaque of all is the body. What can a body do? asked Spinoza. What is the ethical way of filming a body? asked Daney (in the wake of Rivette and Godard). (21) So, tantalising the boundaries of the off-screen, there is Nuno’s presence, but also Nuno’s body. First he does not want to have anything to do with the film. Then he is gradually lured into it. The neighbours, the house, the beloved dogs are in the cinematic field, why not him? Finally Nuno lends his body to a deeply affecting scene, in which you see a 56 year-old HIV positive man making love to his husband.

Grigris

Grigris

It is also because he started with a body – a singular, idiosyncratic, unconventional body – that Mahamat-Saleh Haroun has produced, with Grigris, the most original cinematic trajectory of the year. If anybody knows anything about Chad and Chadian cinema, it’s because of Haroun, who splits his time between N’Djamena, the capital of his native country, and Paris, the city of his exile, the place where you can, eventually, find funding for your projects. Since Bye Bye Africa (1999) Haroun has keenly articulated the dilemma of African subjects: neither here nor there, with a political history and national frontiers handed out by the legacy of colonialism and inter-tribal strife, cultural and consumer products dumped upon them by the First World, treading multiple linguistic boundaries. Abouna (Our Father, 2002) was a road movie of sort, in which two boys were looking for their father; taking them from the capital to the small traditional village of Gaoui, their journey also involved an interrogation of the power of cinema. Daratt (Dry Season, 2006) and Un homme qui crie (A Screaming Man, 2010) are variations on the cost extolled by the country’s long-lasting civil war, destroying lives and families.

Haroun met 25 year-old Souleymane Démé, an unusual city slicker, and built the film around him, bestowing him the nickname of Grigris (powerful amulet or talisman). In spite of his paralysed right leg, Souleymane is the most amazing dancer in N’Djamena’s lively nightclubs. Haroun built on his physical and psychological persona. His Grigris is a star of the night, men applaud his choreographic feats, girls look up to him. During the day, he’s a shy, benign young man, devoted to his mother, who works as a photographer’s assistant in his stepfather’s little shop. Mimi (Anaïs Monuri), a beautiful young woman whose light skin betrays a mixed race background – probably of illegitimate origin – asks to have her picture taken, to enter a fashion model competition. She does not get selected, but Grigris is smitten, and, because he’s such a great dancer, Mimi seems to take to him.

Trouble is brewing. Grigris’s benevolent stepfather gets sick, and to pay his hospital bills, he gets involved with a gang of petrol smugglers. At first he screws up (he had concealed the fact that he did not how to swim) but his excellent driving skills put him back in the good grace of Moussa (Cyril Guei), the gang leader. The latter knows a thing or two about Mimi: she’s a cheap hooker, everybody had their way with her. Yet Grigris is as stubborn in his affections than in his desire to dance. When the hospital bills mount up, he does not think twice about double-crossing Moussa. Here the film seems to veer off toward the kind of neo-noir that Africa has been treating us with recently – some of it very good. Moussa’s henchmen brutally rough up Grigris and he has to pay back the money, or else. The only possible solution is to escape, as far as possible in the Chadian countryside, with Mimi in tow, on his little motorcycle. We are leaving noir territory, to enter the romanticism of Touki Bouki, Djibril Diop Mambety’s legendary 1973 film (that fact that the music is composed by Wasis Diop, Mambety’s brother, certainly helps): a boy and a girl on a motorcycle, but in reverse.

Unlike so many Third World narratives that depict the protagonists’ loss of innocence and their journey from an agrarian community to the city, and/or from the city to Europe or the US, Grigris chronicles a return to the bush that opens a vanishing line in our perception. First the motorcycle breaks down; Grigris and Mimi have to sort out their relationship while trekking dirt roads on foot, as it also becomes clear that Mimi is pregnant from god-knows-which-john. This is when the pair start sharing their most tender, emotionally complex moments. They finally arrive in Mimi’s village, to be warmly welcomed by an old female friend. “Does he know who you are?” she discretely asks Mimi. The men have all gone to work in distant fields: this is a village of women only. Grigris ingratiates them by being much nicer to them than their husbands, and by repairing all the village’s broken transistor radios. One day, a car arrives from the city…

I won’t spoil the surprising ending, its quiet boldness – and tribute to female power – leaving me on the edge of my seat, but Haroun does the opposite of proposing a bucolic, retrograde happy ending. Grigris’s trajectory ends on a leap into the unknown, that of the spectator into an unexpected vista. We are used to seeing Africa in a certain way, with our “knowledge” of a seemingly irresistible rural exodus. Haroun redraws the traveller’s map, reorients our gaze. He suggests that there is an alternative way of looking at “The Third World” and consequently at the world itself, through cinema. Even if it involves killing.

Vancouver International Film Festival
26 September – 11 October 2013
Festival website: http://www.viff.org/festival

Endnotes

  1. Craig Takeuchi, “Empire Granville 7 Cinemas closure in November will affect film festivals”, straight.com, Vancouver online source, 9 October, 2012. Accessed 1 December 2013.
  2. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Constance Penley (ed.), Feminism and Film Theory, New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hill, Inc., 1988.
  3. See Bérénice Reynaud, “Cutting Edge And Missed Encounters – Digital Short Films By Three FilmmakersSenses of Cinema, May 2002 Accessed 3 December 2013.
  4. Quoted in Sergio Toffetti, “L’Ange de l’Histoire. Valerio Zurlini dans le cinéma contemporain” in Sergio Toffetti (ed.), Valerio Zurlini, Lindau, Torino, 1993, p. 21. Translation mine.
  5. Nicola Davison: “Four Ways to Die in my Hometown: First time director Chai Chunya talks about his experimental film”, Time Out Shanghai, 2 March, 2013. Accessed 2 December 2013.
  6. After years of silence, the floodgates have been reopened and a number of people have started recording interviews and collecting memories about the Great Famine of 1958-61, as in The Memory Project, triggered by documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang in his Caochangdi Workstation in Beijing. About a dozen young filmmakers have already contributed and about 700 people been interviewed throughout the Chinese countryside. See for example https://lists.service.ohio-state.edu/pipermail/mclc/2012-November/001272.html, accessed 4 December 2013.
  7. See Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62, Bloomsbury, London & New York, 2010.
  8. Issac Stone Fish, “Mao’s Great “, Newsweek, 26 September 2010.  Accessed 2 December 2013.
  9. Georges Didi-Huberman, Images malgré tout, Editions de Minuit, Paris, 2003. Translated by Shane B. Lillis as Images in Spite of All, U of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2008.
  10. Rithy Panh and Christophe Bataille, L’élimination, Grasset & Fasquelle, Paris, 2012. Translated by John Cullen, as The Elimination: A Survivor of the Khmer Rouge Confronts his Past and the Commandant of the Killing Fields, Other Press, New York, 2012.
  11. Jean-Claude Raspiengeas, “Rithy Panh: «Comment parler de cette mort en nous?»”, La Croix, 8 October 2013. Accessed 2 December 2013. (My translation)
  12. Didi-Huberman, op. cit., p. 123.
  13. Revealed by his role in Li Yang’s Mangjing (Blind Shaft, 2003) when he was 19, Wang has played in several films by Feng Xiaogang, Han Jie’s Hello! Shu Xian Sheng (Mr. Tree, 2011, produced by Jia Zhangke) and recently in the mega-comedic success En zai jiong tu zhi tai jiong (Lost in Thailand) by Xu Zhen. The name of his character, Zhou San, means “Zhou No 3” or “Third Brother Zhou” as he is the youngest brother of the family.
  14. The younger brother of star actor/director Jiang Wen – to whom he resembles – Jiang Wu has mostly worked in experimental theater, but is well known for his starring roles in “new urban films” produced by Imar Company in the late 1990s, such as Shi Runju’s Meili xin shijie, (A Beautiful New World, 1999) and Zhang Yang’s Xizao (Shower, 1999).
  15. Wang was also the director of the latest Beijing Independent Film Festival. See James Wilkerson, “Beijing Independent Film Festival cancelled. Kind of…”, Time Out Beijing, 31 August, 2013. Accessed 3 September 2013.
  16. See Palash Ghosh, “Prostitution Thriving In China: The Dark Underbelly of Economic Prosperity”. International Business Times, 7 May 2013. Accessed 7 December 2013.
  17. Office Kitano’s association with Jia Zhangke dates back from 2000, when it co-produced Zhan Tai (Platform)
  18. Merkado Murphy: “New York Film Festival: Jia Zhang-ke on Contemporary China,” Arts Beat, New York Times, 4 October 2013, Accessed 7 December 2013.
  19. Painter Liu Xiaodong was the subject of Jia Zhangke’s Dong (2006), a companion piece to Still Life, and in which he is seen working on his famous large size paintings of demolition workers in the Three Gorge areas.
  20. Didi-Huberman, op. cit. p. 138.
  21. See Serge Daney, “The Tracking Shot in Kapo,” Senses of Cinema, February 2004. Accessed 8 December 2013