The AFI FEST presented by Audi is a great opportunity to catch up with films you have missed somewhere else, while offering Angelinos who don’t travel a showcase for those that, otherwise, may not make it to our shores – and for this we are immensely grateful. One of the works that was intently expected, after its world premiere in Locarno and sold-out screenings in New York, was Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, as news of her death had deeply struck the local film community. Long lines of ticket holders and hopefuls on wait list started early. This enthusiasm received on both coasts met an echo with the decision made by a daring distribution outfit, Icarus, to acquire the film and distribute it starting 1st April.

No Home Movie starts on a long shot (about four minutes long), in a non-descript desert swept by a violent wind, with a meagre tree that twists and bends, suffering maybe, yet resisting. And the shot lasts, without title or voice over, with the sound of the wind as sole accompaniment. And we start thinking. What is in this shot that is so haunting? In our mind we outline the image of a woman, herself twisting and shaking, and resisting, under the gust of the wind, holding a Blackberry, to capture this image. If you know something about Akerman’s work, you can guess where the desert is. In an interview about Là-bas (2006), shot in Israel, she said: “When Jews in France say to each other ‘Tu vas là-bas?’ they usually mean: ‘are you going to Israel?’ We have the place where we live and we have ‘là-bas’.”1 So, reoccurring a few times, this shot taken in Israel introduces us to the no home part of the movie. It’s là-bas, where the filmmaker does not live. But a là-bas that could have been home. If only…

No Home Movie

No Home Movie

Akerman does not go as far as the destruction of the Temple and the geographical origin of the Jewish people (she’s no Zionist), but simply questions her mother, Natalia, on a series of small happenstances that could have made a big difference. In 1938, then-ten year-old Natalia’s family escaped the rise of anti-Semitism in Poland to move to Belgium, where they thought they would be “safe”. Even after the German army invaded the country, they didn’t feel threatened. “The soldiers were very polite”, says Natalia. Then, things changed, and she ended up in Auschwitz.

Even when her oldest daughter, Chantal, was living in Paris, or in New York, là-bas was always in “conversation” with the home that Brussels never ceased to constitute. The last shot of Les Années 80 (1983), Akerman’s lovely homage to musical comedy, unrequited love, shopping galleries and popular songs, is a circular, 3 ½ minute panning around Brussels at dawn, in a bluish tone, with the noises of the city slowly coming up, while her off-screen voice reads a list of “heartfelt thanks” that concludes on her thanking Brussels and adding (in Hebrew, then in English), “next year in Jerusalem”. So the dialectic Brussels/Israel has deep roots in Akerman’s oeuvre, but there is more to it, since many commentators have insisted on the filmmaker’s apparent rootlessness. Behind every city of the Jewish diaspora, another city is hidden… When she was doing location scouting for D’Est (1993) in the countries of the former Soviet Union, she noticed, when entering people’s homes, that they had the same habits than the members of her family: as soon as they were inside, they would shed their clothes and put on bathrobes.2 So the title has to be understood as made by the overlapping of two circles (as in set theory, or as in a Lacanian drawing): “No Home” and “Home Movie”. The common part to the two circles is the word “home”, which thus acquires a double gravitas. Akerman’s work was always like a double-bottom suitcase: every image, every word concealing another. What you read, what you see, is not what you get.

Until 2002 Akerman had always worked with DPs, sometimes several on the same film (Babette Mangolte, Caroline Champetier, Raymond Fromont – who made more movies with her than any of the others – Luc Benhamou, Sabine Lancelin). She had always been the “thinking head”, the presence behind her shots: designing them precisely, with her famous frontal compositions, and the camera always at her eye level. As a short woman, she therefore reorganised the cinematic field and its vanishing lines in a way no less radical than Ozu (a filmmaker she discovered relatively late in her career) when he positioned the camera at tatami height. So, she was always in the cinematic field – either as a wickedly talented performer (Saute ma ville, 1968; La Chambre, 1972; Je tu il elle, 1975; Les Années 80, 1983; L’Homme à la valise, 1983; Chantal Akerman par Chantal Akerman, 1996), or at the border of the image, through her off-screen gaze, providing a shoring-up for the visual field, in lieu of the almost-always-missing reverse angle shot. With De L’autre côté (2002), she started to share camera responsibilities with Raymond Fromont and Robert Fenz; in Là-bas (2006), Fenz and Akerman are both credited as DPs, but the point of knowing who did what is moot, as the images clearly represent the director’s subjective point of view; we even hear her footsteps in “this apartment which is not mine” as well as her voice-over commentary, as she looks at the objects in the room or at the view through the window, a lattice of thin brown fibres as often used in sun-drenched countries introducing vertical parallel lines between her gaze and the neighbours across the street. She also did the camera for Tombée de nuit sur Shanghai (2007) and Maniac Summer (2009).3 And as I had received a commission for a short as part of [the omnibus film] State of the World, I took advantage of my being there [là-bas] to shoot. Nothing was planned… For Maniac Summer I shot in my home, from the windows of my apartment. I would let the camera roll, it was a sort of aleatory shooting. Then we extracted half an hour from this enormous mass of images. I call this an orphan film.” <Translation mine.>]

No Home Movie

No Home Movie

No Home Movie is, of course, entirely shot by Akerman, with phones, small digital cameras, and, a first for her, on Skype. As in a “true home movie”, she is both inside the image (she puts the camera in some piece of furniture of her mother’s apartment and films the two of them having breakfast and chatting) and at the border, looking in from the point of view of the camera. In the Skype sequences, she is both within and without: the computer screen frames Natalia, but we see Chantal’s hand, or a part of her body, and sometimes a little window with her face appears at the bottom of the screen as well.

Completed a year and a half after the latter’s passing, the film is a companion piece to Ma Mère Rit (My Mother is Laughing) (still untranslated in English) that was published in 2013.4 The book is a chronicle of Natalia’s last months, after a series of health mishaps (broken shoulder, pulmonary embolism) that confined to her apartment in Brussels under the care of a Latin American woman, Clara, and after a major scare while she was visiting her younger daughter, Sylviane, in Mexico. Chantal, who teaches in New York and rents a flat in Harlem, comes and go, spends a bit of time in Brussels where she tries to write. The film is a sort of anamorphosis of the book: we find these moments in No Home Movie, but spatialised, choreographed (as an echo, as so many have noted, of Jeanne Dielman), reaching out to us, thanks to the ever-structuring absence of reverse angle shot.

The bridge between “no home” (the shots taken là-bas, the absence), and “home movie” (conversations with Natalia at the kitchen table or in the living room, views of or from the Brussels apartment), are the Skype sequences, and they are also the most emotional, as well as the ones who reflect the most Akerman’s personality. As always, Natalia complains that her daughter “tells her nothing.” “I have nothing to say, I teach, I see my students, I eat, I walk the dog…” Then comes the moment to hang up: “I have work to do.” Suddenly the banal becomes precious. “A big kiss, Maman, now I am hanging up.” A few more words are exchanged. “Now I really have to hang up. I kiss you a lot.” More small talk. “Maman, I want to give you a big kiss.” Etc… She can’t hang up. Time is missing from time. Time is folding upon itself, and, subjected to the difficult task of compensating for the spatial distance, stutters, stumbles, bites its own tail, gasps for air, bursts out laughing, mocking its own nothingness. But tenderly. Because time is all they had, this moment flattened onto a small screen, knowing that the time would come when the screen would only reflect an empty space. And then two empty spaces. They both knew it. Maybe. Chantal knew it.

One day I even wanted to kill myself but smiling, and, above all, without forgetting to smile as if this was an inconsequential gesture. And it was, since I survived. I survived everything till now, and I have often wanted to commit suicide. But I would tell myself I cannot do this to my mother. After, when she is no longer here.5

The Curve of Time

In a totally different tone, Hong Sang-soo’s Jigeumeun Matgo Geuttaeneum Teullida (Right Now, Wrong Then), the winner of a Golden Leopard in Locarno, reflects an equally personal take on the hiccup of time, on the desire to extend it, mould it, master it to reach a problematic Other, on the impossibility to do so, since, even if you are given a second chance, time will fail you. So, ultimately, the “victory” will be derisory, a small variation on a pattern of failure, but, as Frédéric, the pathetic protagonist of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, says of a particularly ridiculous sexual misadventure, “I believe this was the best time we ever had!”6

AFI FEST film festival review

Right Now, Wrong Then

From the get-go, the plot is marked by temporal mishaps and repetition. In the midst of a cold winter, invited to present his latest opus in a small university festival in the town of Suwon, a somewhat notorious “art filmmaker”, Ham Cheon-soo (Jeong Jae-young, who won the Best Actor Award in Locarno) arrives one day early by mistake, and, with nothing to do, first considers flirting with the female assistant who clearly adores him but then, deciding against it (“too young, too pretty”), he goes to visit a temple. As he is about to enter the structure, he catches a glimpse of the body of a young woman, seen from the back, getting inside. Desire is born out of this fleeting moment, as he thinks he will never see her again. Yet, a couple of hours later, he catches her sitting nonchalantly, drinking banana milk. In a predictable Freudian pattern, through this feeling of déjà vu, through the possible hallucination of a lost object (maybe it wasn’t the same woman, after all), desire crystallises, and he engages conversation with her; then, cashing on her surprise of being chatted by a “famous director”, invites her to have a cup of coffee with him. As it turns out, the woman, Yoon Hee-jeong (Kim Min-hee) does not drink coffee, but they become comfortable enough with each other that, having explained that she gave up a career as a fashion model to devote herself full-time to painting, she invites him to her studio. From there they go to a sushi bar, where they absorb much soju, and embark on a full-blown flirtation. As Cheon-soo takes a break to smoke outside, Hee-jeong suddenly remembers that she had promised a friend to attend a party at her coffeehouse – and then invites him to go with her.

The “party” is actually a small affair: two middle-aged women and one man, in addition to the pair, and they continue on a steady diet of soju. One of the women, a writer, is actually a fan of Cheon-soo’s work (unlike Hee-jeong, she has seen his films), but she also knows a thing or two about him: that he’s married with children, and a notorious womaniser. Saying she has drunk too much, Hee-jeong excuses herself and goes to sleep in the next room. When Cheon-soo tries to talk to her again, she asks him to leave. The next day, he becomes very ornery with the MC at the presentation of his work. The writer has come to attend, and she gives him one of her books; the young hopeful assistant is there too, looking disappointed that he never contacted her back the day before. But not Hee-jeong.

For Hong, women become subjects only at the moment they pose a problem, create a wall of opacity, and resist male agency. This creates an impossible situation: only at the moment they slip away could a conversation be possible. Hong’s cinema is neatly posited on these vanishing lines, which articulate and structure his cinematic field, in which, not coincidentally, both soju and zoom lenses play an important role (a friend astutely noticed that this use of the zoom may be connected to alcohol consumption…) But what would happen if women could reach subjecthood in an ever so slightly different way? This is the challenge taken by the second part of Right Now, Wrong Then. Hong played the first part for his actors, and then rewrote the screenplay with subtle variations. The young assistant almost totally disappears; instead of platitudes, Cheon-soo tells Hee-jeong what he thinks about her painting, which allows her to be mad at him. In the sushi restaurant he admits being married, while still expressing his desire, through a ring he found in the street, to marry her, and she accept the ring as a token of love. At the coffee shop, he makes a total ass of himself, while she is sleeping in the next room (later, learning that, in his drunkenness, he stripped and exposed himself in front of her friends, she will just say, laughingly “I should have been there!”), but is allowed to walk her back to the house she shares with her mother, and then wait for her, as a gallant knight of lore, in the cold of the night.

And then what? This waiting, this longing for a connection was really “the best time they ever had”, the best they ever will. As demonstrated in his previous work, Hong is quite pessimistic (realistic?) about his protagonists’ capability to overcome to “sexual impasse”, no matter how many chances they get to do so. There is something a bit puritanical, almost Rohmerian in this. In the first iteration of the story, once confronted with the fact that he is married, Cheon-soo talks quite eloquently about the calming influence of his wife. Hee-jeong is the dream, like Maud or Chloe for Rohmer’s protagonists, but, at the end of the day, what remains is just a memory. Bitter in the first part, with the sense of a series of faux pas; sweet and melancholy in the second, rich with an array of unexplored possibilities.

Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Unimachi Diary (Our Little Sister) may be the loveliest movie I saw this year. There is a genuine sweetness, a warm humanism, which, however, never falls into cheap sentimentalism, in his work. A moralist at heart, he designs complex characters through an accumulation of small touches, which is why one of his centres of cinematic operation is the Japanese family. In Our Little Sister, the adaptation of the work of one of a few manga female writers, Yoshida Akimi, he explores, for the first time, a wholly feminine universe, captured at a respectful distance, with long, exquisitely composed, static shots (there is only one close-up-cum-camera movement, to underline a moment of exuberance on the part of the “Little Sister” Suzu, enjoying the sun and the flowers in the garden).

AFI FEST film festival review

Our Little Sister

Three sisters, Sachi (Haruka Ayase), 29, Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa), 22, and Chika (Kaho), 19, live together in a large, beautiful yet slightly crumbling house in the quiet splendour of the seaside city of Kamakura. They have been fending for themselves since their parents’ divorce more than 15 years ago. Their father left them and remarried twice, their mother went off to another city. The bond between the sisters is strong, sometimes fraught with subtle underlying tensions. Learning of their father’s death, they travel to his new home in Yamagata, where they meet his third wife, as well as the 13 year-old daughter, Suzu (Suzu Hirase, who won four “newcomer talent” awards in Japan for her part in the film), he had with his second wife (the one responsible for the break-up of the family), now dead. Impulsively, Sachi invites the girl to live with them.

There is nothing much of a plot, except the quiet unfolding of the seasons, with their rituals (plum blossoms, journeys to the beach, fireworks, harvesting fruit – the film was shot over a period of ten months) and minute effects of character development, especially centred around Sachi. A nurse, she has a secret affair with a married doctor, and can’t make the decision to drop everything and follow him to the US; she has basically brought up her younger sisters, and sometimes feels irritated by their choices in men; as she develops a special fondness for Suzu, her emotional balance is upset when she meets her mother again, as she has come for an aunt’s funeral.

A story of women, indeed, how they cope with abandonment, intimate bonds, sexual longings, the need to forgive. Around them, Kore-eda has crafted some arresting characters: the men in the sisters’ lives, the woman who owns the restaurant their father used to patronise and who is dying of cancer, the man who is sweet on her. Our Little Sister has to be savoured slowly, like a scroll painting, a meditative piece of music, or the fragrant plum wine (an old family recipe) the four sisters joyfully make together.

Discoveries

Temporarily Oscar-nominated (and the winner of several awards in Berlin, Carthagena, Ghent, Guadalajara, Jerusalem, Molodist, Mumbai and Philadelphia) Jayro Bustamante’s Ixcanul was a genuine discovery, as this is not only the director’s first feature, but also the first film made in the Kaqchikel Mayan language, with Mayan performers, about the Mayan community in Guatemala by somebody who grew up in the area. North and South of the Equator, Native Americans have been reduced to submission, exterminated en masse, their languages, culture and way of life marginalised and on the brink of extinction. The Mayan people are now mostly composed of poor peasants who eke a meagre living on their small piece of land, or work for plantations or agribusiness corporations. María’s (María Mercedes Coroy) parents, Juana and Manuel (Manuel Antun), are tenants on a coffee plantation; even their shabby house does not belong to them. María is 17, beautiful and vivacious, and the plantation overseer Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo), a widower, needs a companion and somebody to take care of his young children. A marriage is arranged, but the teenager has other plans, and seduces a coffee-picker more in her age range, Pepe (Marvin Coroy), who has decided to leave the mountain and move to the city. Soon, María finds herself pregnant, and discovers that Pepe has left without her.

AFI FEST film festival review

Ixcanul

The film refocuses on Juana, engagingly played by María Telon, an energetic widow involved in political street theatre (the only professional in the lot), who had introduced Bustamante to her rural community near the volcano, where most of the action takes place. Juana tries to find a way for her daughter to abort, then, failing, to speed up the wedding. She and her husband are afraid that, should Ignacio find out, they will lose their house, their job and become unemployed wanderers. Poisonous snakes invade their little lot of land, and tradition has it that pregnant women have a special gift to repel and subdue them. Instead, María gets bitten, and has to be rushed to a hospital in the city, hours away, Ignacio lending his car to the distressed parents.

The real María existed (she was introduced to Bustamante by his physician mother) and what happens next is a clear-cut case of the exploitation of indigenous women in a globalised economy. Bustamante makes us share his indignation, but also the beauty of the rituals surrounding the mourning for the missing baby, and, eventually, the lack of harsh moral standards in the community. María’s parents never scolded her for getting pregnant, and Ignacio still wants to marry her.

A new generation of female directors is currently changing the landscape of Israeli cinema, and in the last few months, I have had the pleasure of watching Michal Vinik’s remarkable debut, Barash (a lesbian-accented morality tale about a changing society, world-premiered in San Sebastian) and Elite Zexer’s award-winning story about Bedouin women Sufat Choi (Sand Storm) (see my Sundance report). In Ha’har (Mountain), first-time feature director Yaelle Kayam casts an abrasive glance at another category of women too often mis- or under-represented, Jewish Orthodox wives. Deceptively slow and quiet at first – we follow the daily routine of Tzvia (Shani Klein) who minds her four children in her little house by the Mount of Olives cemetery, while her husband Reuven (Avshallom Pollack), a Yeshiva teacher, is mostly absent and no longer desires her – Mountain gradually gains momentum as Tzvia’s frustration simmers to the point of no return. A series of small events unsettles her, from her older daughter’s rebellious siding on her father’s side, to a “forbidden” conversation with the Palestinian caretaker of the cemetery, and most importantly, as it dovetails with her sexual longings, her discovery that the cemetery is used at night by pimps and whores to meet derelict customers on the tombs. But Tzvia has nothing better to do at night, and, even after being found out and called a freak by the members of the sex trade, she comes back, again and again, not only to watch, but also to bring warm food. Now Tzvia cooks two pots of her delightful recipes, and it seems that pimps and whores appreciate her culinary talents more than her own family. Those who may have seen Zhang Lu’s Mang Zhong (Grain in Ear, 2005) – another parable about a woman pushed to the edge and combining cooking with revenge – will guess soon enough that this is not going to end well. Even so, Kayam manages an original, open-ended, surprising coda.

AFI FEST film festival review

Mountain

AFM: the Lure of Previews

Overlapping with the AFI FEST, The American Film Market (AFM), through its rich choice of more than 700 preview screenings of approximately 400 films from 80 different countries, is also a great place to catch up on missed screenings or make discoveries. High on my list was Philip Yung’s Port of Call, that had played at the Hong Kong Film Festival last spring after my departure (and then the production company botched the international release). A noir atmospheric murder tale exquisitely shot by Christopher Doyle, Port of Call espouses the rhythm of working-class contemporary Hong Kong, as it is inspired by a case that made the headlines six years ago.

AFI FEST film festival review

Port of Call

A teenage girl, Jiamei (Jessie Li), who had come to Hong Kong from Hunan with her mother May (Elaine Jin) and her sister, drops out of school and drifts into prostitution. Then she disappears and the headless, dismembered body of a young woman is found in a tenement. Detective Chong (Aaron Kwok, intelligently trading his leading man image to embody a scruffy, insecure, divorced man discovering that he is turning grey and getting old) leads the investigation, and soon focuses on a suspect, a lovable, lonely young loser, Ting Tsz-chung (Michael Ning), who drowns the frustration of his unrequited crush for his gold-digging best friend by patronising prostitutes.

Yung builds the film through a series of flashbacks, which allows him to do simultaneously three things. First, prepare the audience for the horrible details of the crime. Second, craft an engaging character development around the persona of the detective, his personal and professional relationships, that include a young daughter, a partner (Hong Kong New Wave luminary Patrick Tam) and a female colleague who may be sweet on him. Third, and more importantly, to peel off the layers of the mystery that surrounds Jiamei. Was she pregnant? What did she want? Who did she love? What was her connection to the killer, and why did she put herself in such a situation?

Both Jessie Li and Elaine Jin’s first-rate performances intimate the multiple facets of the tragic situation of working class immigrant women from the mainland, and the swelling number of them who end badly, exploited in underpaid jobs, marginalised or even killed. While May is more open, a fighter poised to overcome sorrow and adversity, Jiamei remains a cypher, evoked only though the voices and testimonies of others, including her killer.

Few people have captured the pulse of contemporary Hong Kong as Johnnie To.7 His 1989 movie, Ah Long dik goo si (All About Ah Long), starring Chow Yun-fat and Sylvia Chang (who both contributed to the story), was a hit in Hong Kong and among Chinese cinema lovers, as was his feminist/lingerie fetish spoof on the wuxia genre, Dong fang san xia (The Heroic Trio, 1991), but it was only with his violent triad stories and police thrillers that he attracted international attention, through such films as Chan sam ying hung (A Hero Never Dies, 1998), but mostly Cheung foh (The Mission, 1999). Like his cops, To’s gangsters were working class, completely at ease in the vernacular culture of the street. In 2005, I was writing about The Mission, as “the drifting away of gangsters subtly marginalized by the consumer society… The setting in which they are the most comfortable are the streets inhabited by hard-working immigrants, where, at night, gangsters and cops shoot at each other. They all dream of ‘a better tomorrow’. They will send their children to Harvard. Or they will die in the gutter.”8 Fact is, there are less and less dirty gutters in Hong Kong, and the triads did send their sons to Harvard. In the diptych Hak se wui (Election, 2005) and Hak se wui yi wo wai kwai (Triad Election, 2006), To powerfully demonstrated how gangland activities and neo-capitalistic ventures fruitfully coexist in the new economy dominated by globalisation and the growing Chinese market. Armani-clad MBA gangster scions run seemingly legitimate businesses, with money that is as dirty and methods as cutthroat as their less well-dressed fathers.

In 2011, in Dyut meng gam (Life Without Principle), To applies the narrative tropes of a well-designed crime film (suspense, murder, chase) to unfold the effects of the Greek debt caused-stock market collapse on the life of a police officer and his wife, a female bank investment advisor and a triad. Meanwhile, he continued to puzzle his Western fans by persisting to craft romance films, adorned with sentimental theme songs, that are much appreciated by Hong Kong audiences. Screened at the AFM after an international premiere at the London Film Festival and a presentation in Toronto, Hua li shang ban zu (Office) is a magnificent statement of how To merges the different strands of his work to comment on what Hong Kong has become: a glittering skyline of hypermodern skyscrapers, that can be reached through clean (yet crowded) MTR (subway) cars disgorging thousands of brand-dressed commuters into large stations, shopping malls and elevators going straight to the 17th floor – with the Company CEO as post-modern triad boss. The main difference, it seems, is the presence of these hard-as-nail corporate women, ready to everything to climb to the top (is capitalism less sexist than highway robbery?).

AFI FEST film festival review

Office

Taking place in 2008, just before the fall of the Lehman Brothers, the film is an adaptation of Sylvia Chang’s stage play, and Chang appears in the part of CEO Winnie Chan, paired, both professionally and personally, with her co-star of All About Ah Long, Chow Yun-fat, as the Chairman of the company, Ho Chung-ping (they have a secret affair while Ho’s wife is in a coma).9 And, in the fantastic décors created by William Chang (known for his work in the films of Wong Kar-wai and Stanley Kwan), with the brilliant choreography devised by To and his regular DP Cheng Siu Keung, showing hundreds of employees evolving within the open cubicles of corporate offices, crossed with horizontal and vertical lines, it’s a musical! (And it does not hurt that Hou Hsiao-hsien’s collaborator, the genial Tu Duu-Chih, was involved in the sound design.) As usual, To is a great director of actors, and, in addition to the two leads, the film is replete with sacred monsters – from Cheung Siu-Fai that embodied so many of his conflicted gangsters, to Eason Chan, Tang Wei, and some young actors (Wang Ziyi and Lang Yueting) playing two newly recruited interns, who, thrown in the merry-go-round, are trying to come out on top and make things work for them. A delight!

Also noteworthy was Saving Mr. Wu, mainland Chinese director Ding Sheng’s attempt at “serious filmmaking” – by adapting the case of the 2004 kidnapping of actor Wu Ruofu, for ransom. (Wu, whose career somewhat floundered after the event, appears in the small part of the partner of the main cop in charge of the case, the always excellent Liu Ye.) Ding adapts the story to contemporary mores, so, when Wu (soulfully played by Andy Lau, who knows a thing or two about the trappings of being famous) is kidnapped by gangsters pretending to be arresting cops, the rumour in the street is that Wu may have been taking drugs or patronising hookers (the two major reasons for which famous people in the Chinese film industry have recently been arrested under a government intent on enforcing a major cleaning operation).

The head honcho, a troubled Zhang Hua (Wang Qingyuan) is upset because Wu’s capture is his second kidnapping of the day, after a major flounder. His previous victim, Xiao Dou (Cai Lu), was in fact driving the car that his girlfriend, the mistress of a rich man, had lent him. He’s not wealthy, therefore totally irrelevant for his scheme, and Zhang wouldn’t think twice about having his henchmen kill him, if Wu didn’t interfere. The film then unfolds on two levels: the efforts of the cops to “save Mr Wu” before the gangster-imposed deadline, and the bond that is created, and at moments lovingly rendered, between the movie star and the little man that does not matter.

Of late, some young Caucasian men have taken to directing films in mainland China, often working with local producers delighted to bring new blood and a new vision. (No women, though, that I know of. Come on, sisters!). Co-produced in Hong Kong by director Pang Ho Cheung and his partner/producer Subi Liang and Bravo Pictures Limited, Jordan Schiele’s San Fu Tian (Dog Days) is a variation on the theme of the unfit mother trying to redeem herself for the sake of her child. In the hot days of summer, in the dour outskirts of Changsha (capital of Hunan province in southern China), Lulu (Huang Lu), an exotic dancer in a cheap nightclub, discovers that her boyfriend Bai Long (Tian Mu Chen) is missing with their baby. Wearing hot pants during the entire film, she half-heartedly tries to trade her sex appeal for some information, until she finds what she was looking for with Sunny (Luo Lanshan), a fragile young gay man performing in a transvestite bar, who may have a homosexual relationship with Bai Long. A former Brooklyn-born DP, now based in Beijing, Schiele has worked closely with his DP, Nathanael Carton, on the look of the film, its sensual, oppressive, sweltering atmosphere.

AFI FEST film festival review

Dog Days

Huang Lu, who also appeared in another film directed by a Caucasian director, Conrad Clark’s A Fallible Girl (2013), produced by Beijing/Hong Kong based Chow Keung, and mostly known for her parts in Li Yang’s Mang shan (Blind Mountain, 2007), Guo Xiaolu’s She, a Chinese (2009), Lou Ye’s Tui na (Blind Massage, 2014), as well as the last two episodes of Yang Fudong’s Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest (2008), is an actress that can be both forceful and subtle, and project complexity behind a devil-may-care surface. Dog Days, which resurfaced in Berlin’s Panorama this spring, touches controversial issues, from child trafficking to bisexuality, so it is unclear whether it will be released in China. The AFM is a place that allows you to keep abreast of filmic ventures that deserve better than marginalisation.

 

AFI FEST
5-12 November 2015
Festival website: http://www.afi.com/afifest/

American Film Market
4-11 November 2015
Market website: http://americanfilmmarket.com

 

Endnotes

  1. Quoted in Chrysanthi Nigianni, “Chantal Akerman’s Là-bas: The Suspended Image and the Politics of Anti-Messianism”, Senses of Cinema, July 2013, Issue 67, http://sensesofcinema.com/2013/feature-articles/chantal-akermans-la-bas-the-suspended-image-and-the-politics-of-anti-messianism/, accessed 6 March 2016. The essay also provides a fine analysis of the film.
  2. Chantal Akerman, introduction to the screening of D’Est, Locarno International Film Festival, August 1993.
  3. See Cyril Béghin, “La Folie Almayer – Entretien avec Chantal Akerman.” http://www.lafermedubuisson.com/IMG/pdf/lfa-dp.pdf, accessed 6 March 2016. “While filming this sequence in Shanghai bay I was horrified and excited. Yet, there is sweetness in the beginning of the film… I was in China to do location scouting and to look for producers [for a film that was never made, Tr.’s Note
  4. Chantal Akerman, Ma Mère Rit, Paris: Mercure de France, 2013
  5. Ibid, p. 162
  6. Flaubert, Sentimental Education, Dora Knowles Ranous ed., New York: Brentano’s, 1922, p. 600 – originally published in French as L’Education Sentimentale – Histoire d’un Jeune Homme, Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, 1870.
  7. To this date, the ever-prolific Johnnie To – born To Kei-Fung in 1955 – has had, since 1978, 66 credits as a director, and 73 as a producer; To usually produces his work through his company, Milky Way, and has contributed to shaping Hong Kong cinema further by producing the works of stylish muscular directors such as Cheang Pou-soi, Law Wing-Cheong, Patrick Leung, Yau Nai-Oi, Yau Tat-Chi or his frequent co-director Wai Ka Fai; box-office values such as Ringo Lam or Jeffrey Lau; art house directors such as Lawrence Law; as well as fostering the talents of film students by initiating the “Fresh Wave” competition and producing the collective student film Yat gor fuk jaap gu si (A Complicated Story, 2013).
  8. Bérénice Reynaud, “Hong Kong” in La Ville au cinéma – Encyclopédie, Thierry Jousse and Thierry Paquot eds., Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2005, p. 408.
  9. While pursuing an illustrious career as an actress, Chang has also written and directed 14 movies since 1981.