In the fall 2016, US film festivals on the West Coast had the foresight, the clout and the good luck to uncover some significant gold nuggets: Telluride world premiered Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, and AFI FEST Presented by Audi unveiled Damien Chazelle’s La La Land to American audiences.  The Festival also reprised a number of films that got nominated (Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, Raul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, Garth Davis’s Lion, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, Ron Clements and John Musker’s Moana) or awarded (Asghar Farhadi’s Forushande/The Salesman) during the last Oscar ceremony. La La Land’s gala screening was electrifying, as this was a movie really made for us, Angelinos, who identified with its urban lay-out/traffic pattern tropes from the first image of a traffic jam on a highway exchanger so bad that people get out of their stopped cars and start singing and dancing. It is well known that Chazelle has mentioned both the golden age of US musicals and Jacques Demy as a treasured source of inspiration, but to me this sequence brought to mind another echo: the unforgettable opening of Fellini’s Roma (1972), in which the access to the Eternal City is so congested that motorists, passengers, kids, hookers, clergy (and even animals if memory serves me right) spill out on the shoulder or the middle of the road to yell at each other or eat dry sausage and pastasciutta (not the animals, though). The poster for the film then read something like this “Rome is a really beautiful place to wait for the end of the world”. AFI FEST usually does not indulge in apocalyptic fantasies, but this was our first post-election-of-Trump festival, and Los Angeles was in a state of shock: was it the end of something? Then, for an image-packed week, we decided to forget, face the music later, and deal with traffic jams on our way to the screenings in a pragmatic, one-jam-at-a-time manner.

Femmes, femmes

In her introductory note, festival director Jacqueline Lyanga announced that, to celebrate AFI FEST’s 30th edition, special tributes were organised to women who had significantly contributed to the film industry: pioneers Dorothy Dandridge, Ida Lupino and Anna May Wong in the Legacy Section; Annette Benning and Isabelle Huppert, whose latest movies were shown in the Centerpiece Galas section. Another significant homage was the screening of Daughters of the Dust (1991), LA Rebellion filmmaker Julie Dash’s first feature that was a landmark in the representation of the African American experience in cinema. Presented at Sundance, this was also the first film directed by an African American woman to receive theatrical distribution in the US. (We’ll have to wait till 2012 for a film directed by an African American woman to get a Directing Award at Sundance with Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere.) Just as importantly, this was a film elegantly treading the boundary between narrative and experimentation, with its non-linear form of storytelling, specific sense of time and lyrical compositions. Ace DP Arthur Jafa – who won the Cinematography Award at Sundance – had designed a camera allowing him to change the speed of recording, in order to reproduce the improvisational rhythm of “Great Black Music” and better render the film’s emotional landscape. Daughters was significantly about a non-mainstream corner of the African American experience – and not only because it was about women. The film takes place in 1902, on the cusp of the Great Migration North, on Saint Helena Island off the Coast of South Carolina, in a Gullah extended family. Dash’s father came from a Gullah background; the Gullah were free people descendant of African slaves living in South Carolina and the Sea Islands, and have a specific culture and creolised language1. Added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2004, the film was first restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive in preparation for their epoch-making exhibition of the films of the LA Rebellion in 20112. Then, in April 2016, Beyoncé’s album, Lemonade, in which cognoscenti recognised the influence of Daughter’s visual vocabulary, sparked a new interest in the film, and a commercial distributor, the Cohen Media Group, financed a 2K restoration, and released it at the end of November, after being showcased in Toronto and at the AFI FEST…

AFI Film Festival

Daughters of the Dust

Daughters was opening a doorway toward a different world, in which time, space, history, race, and the feminine itself, had a different gravitas – but this perspective remained unexplored for a long time. The charismatic, scintillating and markedly efficient Julie Dash didn’t have a career as tragically aborted as, say, Barbara Loden, who was only able to direct a single masterpiece, Wanda, in 1970.3 Dash had a successful career on television – directing films that made a difference, such as The Rosa Parks Story (2002) about the woman whose refusal to get off her seat on the bus sparked the Civil Rights movement – and is currently teaching at Howard University, where Haile Gerima is one of her colleagues.

From Acting to Directing

Cultural progress is complex – one step forward, two steps backward, to reprise Lenin’s motto – and being a trailblazer is not a comfortable position. Ida Lupino (1918-95), the other female director celebrated in the Legacy section, started her career as a feline-looking actress, with a beautiful triangular face and bedroom eyes. Born in England in 1918, she became a US citizen in 1948 and worked with most of the big boys in Hollywood: Henry Hathaway (Come On Marines!, 1934), Lewis Milestone (Paris in Spring, 1935; Anything Goes, 1936), Robert Mamoulian (The Gay Desperado, 1936), Raoul Walsh (Artists and Models, 1937; They Drive by Night, 1938; High Sierra, 1941; The Man I Love, 1947, in which her talents as a sultry singer are fully exploited), Walter Huston (The Light that Failed, 1939), Michael Curtiz (The Sea Wolf, 1941), Anatole Litvak (Out of the Fog, 1941), Charles Vidor (Ladies in Retirement, 1941), Jean Negulesco (Deep Valley, 1947; Road House, 1948), Nicholas Ray (On Dangerous Ground, 1951), Robert Aldrich (The Big Knife, 1955) and even Fritz Lang (While the City Sleeps, 1956). While she appeared in musicals and comedies, her physical presence made her particularly suited for film noirs, often with a twinge of melodrama.

In 1948, with her then-husband Collier Young, she created a production company, The Filmakers (sic), and co-wrote her first screenplay, in collaboration with the soon-to-be-blacklisted Paul Jarrico4 on a controversial subject: the plight of an unwed mother who has to give up her baby for adoption; the director she had retained having fallen sick, she took up the direction, and the film, Not Wanted (1949), was a success. The company produced 12 films – including Don Siegel’s Private Hell 36 (1954) in which she has a starring role – and six she directed or co-directed. While she often dealt with issues pertaining to women (Outrage, 1950, is about rape; Hard, Fast and Beautiful, 1951, pits an ambitious “stage mother” and her unhappy tennis prodigy daughter; The Bigamist, 1954, opposes Joan Fontaine and Lupino herself as two women involved with the same man due to the fact that one of them cannot conceive a child), the film the AFI FEST chose to show, The Hitch-Hiker (1953) has been written as “the first film noir directed by a woman” and is a taut, lean fiction, inspired by a real-life crime spree. Lupino directs her all-male cast (Edmund O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy as the All-American men who pick up a dangerous hitch-hiker and William Talman as the psychopathic killer) with a sure hand and a keen sense of space and landscape (the highways of the Southwest, Baja California Peninsula, the Mexican-American boarder) and accurately times the suspense of a progressively darker nightmare.

AFI Film Festival

The Hitch-Hiker

Lupino was the only woman to direct films in Hollywood in the 1950s (Dorothy Arzner had stopped making films after First Comes Courage in 1943) and eventually Lupino stopped too, after The Bigamist. She briefly returned to feature film directing with The Trouble with Angels in 1966, and left her mark on television as well, being the only woman to have directed a couple of episodes of The Twilight Zone in the 1960s; she was also active in the series Bewitched and Honey West.

The Woman Who Danced

The two other trailblazers selected by the AFI FEST were actresses – whose importance lay not only in their gender but in their race. Anna May Wong (1905-1961), whose beautiful face adorned the cover of the Festival program, is often cited as an example of how Hollywood’s racial policy produced a waste of talent. Born in Los Angeles’s Chinatown in a family of second-generation immigrants that ran a laundry, Wong was the first Chinese American star. She first appeared, uncredited, at the age of 14, in an Alla Nazimova vehicle5, The Red Lantern (1919), by the famed French director of silent treasures Albert Capellani (1874-1931)6. She rose to fame as Lotus Flower, a Chinese Madama Butterfly in Chester M. Franklin’s The Toll of the Sea (1922), the second feature produced by the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation. She appeared in various supporting roles in silent films such as Tod Browning’s Drifting (1923) – this movie leading to an interracial affair between the 43 year-old director and an underage Wong, who had to move out of her family’s house as a result – and she continued to steal the show in the small part of the Princess’s Mongol slave in Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924), produced by and starring Douglas Fairbanks. The erotic apparatus created by Walsh, however, came to define Wong’s career: playing the mysterious, exotic, often duplicitous, cruel or treacherous seductress, offering male audiences or her male co-stars a taste of forbidden paradise and threatening to upstage the Caucasian actress she is paired with/against, while it is finally the latter who gets her man. Anti-miscegenation laws, preventing any on-screen romance and any physical contact between white and non-white performers, were in full bloom in Hollywood (they would only be de facto repelled in the late 1960s), and, in spite of her successes, she could never be a leading lady. In her most famous talkie, Von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932), as the courtesan Hui Fei who twice saves her traveling companion and friend Marlene Dietrich, first by becoming a sexual object for warlord Chang, then by stabbing him, she still is a foil to the German star. Shortly afterwards, she lost the role of O-lan in the Pearl Buck-inspired The Good Earth (1937, Sidney Franklin) to Luise Rainer (who played against another Caucasian actor made up as a Chinese, Paul Muni, and was to won an Academy Award for her performance). Only when paired with an Asian leading man – and in Hollywood at that time, there was only one, Sessuye Ayakawa7 – that she could sizzle and fully express her erotic and glamorous potential, as in Lloyd Corrigan’s Daughter of the Dragon (1931).

So it’s not surprising that Wong travelled to Europe to look for better opportunities. She made films in Germany (where she befriended Leni Riefenstahl and Marlene Dietrich) appeared in operettas in Vienna, and in an adaptation of the Yuan Dynasty Chinese play, A Circle of Chalk, opposite a young Laurence Olivier, produced by Basil Dean, on the London stage. Directed in 1929 by German émigré director E.A. Dupont for his first British film, Piccadilly, shown at the AFI in a version restored by the BFI, belongs to that period of her life. Maybe not so surprisingly, it reproduces the same tropes Wong was trying to escape. She plays Shosho, a beautiful dishwasher in a posh London nightclub, with a knack for dancing. The nightclub owner, Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas) is embroiled in a messy relationship with his star, Mabel (Gilda Gray) who is actively courted by her dancing partner, Vic (Cyril Ritchard). The same night, Valentine fires Shosho for having distracted the other dishwashers with her dancing, and Vic for trying to run away with Mabel – but Vic’s absence has a bad effect on the club’s business. In need of a new attraction, Val hires Shosho as a dancer. Even though she has a Chinese boyfriend, Jim (Kim Ho Chang), Shosho gradually becomes the stereotypical Chinese gold digger, cashing on Val’s attraction to her. As in Wong’s real life, she moves out of her family’s apartment and gets her own place.

AFI Film Festival

Piccadilly

What breaks the stereotype (the white woman and the Asian woman rival for the affection of the same man) and turns Piccadilly into an important melodrama, is its social relevance. Driving Shosho home, Valentine finds himself deep into the infamous streets of Limehouse, the working-class/immigrant slums where Griffith’s Broken Blossoms was supposed to take place. A scene functions as a mise en abyme of the shadows that doom the possibility of an inter-racial relationship. Shosho takes Valentine to a dance hall: “This is the way we have fun”, she says, contrasting the rowdy crowd with the chic patrons of Piccadilly. A middle-aged woman starts dancing with the only black man in sight. Immediately, a bunch of bullies split the couple and eject the black man out of the hall, saying they won’t “allow for this”. Wong’s superior performance keeps the mystery about what she really wants out of life, out of the relationship. While Mabel breaks down and Jim is eaten away by jealousy, it becomes clear that there is a price to pay for crossing the colour line.

The Woman Who Could Have Sung

Dorothy Dandridge (1922-65), also crossed that line, as she became the first African American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award for her role in the epoch-making (and hugely successful) Carmen Jones (1954), directed by Otto Preminger – with whom she became involved during the shooting of the film, a relationship that lasted four years. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Dandridge had been performing since early childhood, as her mother, Ruby, separated from her husband, created a song-and-dance act for her two young daughters, the Wonder Children, that toured the US. After moving to Hollywood in 1934, The Wonder Children were renamed The Dandridge Sisters, continued to tour, and performed in the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. This led to small appearances in films, such as Sam Wood’s A Day at the Races (1937) with the Marx Brothers. Throughout the 1940s, Dorothy appeared in bit parts in a number of unremarkable films, while continuing to successfully perform on the nightclub circuit. In 1953, she got star billing in a low-budget film with an almost all-black cast, Gerald Mayer’s Bright Road, that also marked the first film role of a young Harry Belafonte (born 1927) – and eventually led to a (rather tempestuous) audition with Preminger.

Adapting a successful Broadway play that transposed Bizet’s opera into the African American milieu during WWII, Preminger was careful not to commit miscegenation sins on-screen; Dandridge is once again paired with Harry Belafonte as the soldier Joe who can’t help falling in love with her; her rival, Cindy Lou, Joe’s neglected fiancée (who gets to sing “How can I love a man when I know he don’t want me” – words reprised by Anne-Marie Miéville as the title of her 1983 film), played by Olga James, is another black woman, and when she cheats on Joe and leaves him, it is for Husky Miller (Joe Adams), an African American boxing champion. Born in 1905 in a Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian empire, Preminger was directing plays in Vienna when, in 1935, he accepted producer Joseph Schenck’s invitation to join Twentieth Century Fox in Los Angeles, where he soon became a giant of the film industry.8. He may have been one of the directors who understood the best how to use the bodies of beautiful women as the ultimate cinematic signifier: Gene Tierney in Laura (1944), Whirlpool (1949) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), Alice Faye in Fallen Angel (1945), Joan Crawford in Daisy Kenyon (1947), Linda Darnell in Forever Amber (1947), Jean Simmons in Angel Face (1953). He has remained famous for his ground-breaking use of both camera movements (the famous tracking shots in Laura) and vibrant colour Cinemascope, often around the curves of a woman’s body in such films as River of No Return (1954, with Marilyn Monroe), Bonjour Tristesse (1958 with Jean Seberg), Porgy and Bess (1959 – again with an all-black cast involving Dandridge, Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis, Jr.)… and Carmen Jones.

While the film didn’t break the colour line, while it yielded to some of Hollywood’s bad habits (in spite of their achievements as singers, both leads were dubbed – Dandridge by mezzo soprano opera singer Marilyn Horne and Belafonte by LeVern Hutcherson) contributed to break many a taboo about the representation of black women’s sexuality onscreen. Before Carmen Jones, we had a flurry of a-sexual Mammies, stupid servant girls rolling their eyes and screaming in high pitch, uninteresting predatory sluts good enough to be seduced or raped without a second thought, nags like Amos ‘n’ Andy Sapphire, or tragic mulattas. As a femme fatale with a sense of humour, Dandridge projects a complex sense of her own sensuality; she is a woman that men can lust after, and women identify with. She is certainly sincere when she falls in love with Joe, and no less when she gets tired of him. She won’t be tied up or domesticated. She wants to have fun and remain free. She won’t feel responsible for the romantic projections of the men who desire her; such projections are their problem, not hers. Here we have a thinking subject, not an amoral little animal unconsciously playing with big boys. It may have been too early to talk about feminism – and anyhow the American feminism that was to blossom shortly afterwards mostly addressed white middle class women. Maybe the term African American writer Bell Hooks inherited from her grandmother, womanist, describes it best, as it contains the double meaning of (black) female pride and stubborn resistance.

Two Strong Women

AFI FEST also paid homage to two major living actresses. I missed the tribute to Annette Benning, but attended the special evening dedicated to Isabelle Huppert. Preceding her on-stage interview was a collage of some of the films she is best-known for: from her felicitous collaboration with Claude Chabrol – Violette Nozière (1978), Une Affaire de femmes (Story of Women, 1988), Madame Bovary (1991), La Cérémonie (1995), Merci pour le chocolat (2000), L’ivresse du pouvoir (Comedy of Power, 2006) – to her work with Claude Goretta (La Dentellière/The Lacemaker, 1977), André Téchiné (Les Soeurs Bronté/The Bronté Sisters, 1979), Maurice Pialat (Loulou, 1980), Michael Cimino (Heaven’s Gate, 1980), Michael Haneke (La Pianiste/The Piano Teacher, 2001), Claire Denis (White Material, 2009), Brillante Mendoza (Captive, 2012) or Hong Sang-soo (Da-reun na-ra-e-seo/In Another Country, 2012). Always generous, she also appeared in the work of more confidential auteurs (Benoît Jacquot, Jacques Doillon, Raul Ruiz, Rithy Panh, Hal Hartley, Werner Schroeter), young filmmakers (Christophe Honoré, Joachim Lafosse) and female directors (Diane Kurys, Anne Fontaine, Valeria Sarmiento, Catherine Breillat, Laurence Ferreira Barbosa, Patricia Mazuy, Ursula Meier…). She is one of the French actresses most favoured by foreign directors. One of the last great stars of cinema, a true monstre sacré, Huppert (born in 1953, and still ravishingly sexy) has appeared in more than 100 films, so a selection was unavoidable, but I missed seeing clips from the two films she made with Godard: Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Every Man for Himself, 1980) and Passion (1982). Once filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin (and former Godard collaborator from the time of the Dziga Vertov group) used her performance in Sauve qui peut to analyse what makes Godard’s work so potent – and so potentially lethal. Businessmen bring two hookers, one played with great poise by Huppert, another by an unknown extra, into their hotel room. The clients order the second girl to disrobe and say, in front of the camera, “Mes nichons, y sont pas fantastiques” (“My boobs aren’t that great”), and Gorin was contrasting the painful vulnerability expressed by the character/the extra, to what he described as the “duck-like quality” of the star, who, even naked, seemed impervious and completely “water-proof” to everything that was happening to her or around her. Such is the difference between a regular girl paid a few hundred francs to show her breasts in a movie and a regal star – a difference that Godard addressed frontally, unflinchingly, cruelly. In Passion, Huppert is a stuttering union organiser who, in a famous line, tells the factory owner (Michel Piccoli) “not to make fun of the working class”. She eventually loses her virginity to Jerzy (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), a Polish filmmaker trying to make a film. Jerzy also gets involved with Hanna (Hanna Schygulla), the owner of the hotel he and his crew are staying in, who is married to the factory boss. At some point he makes a comparison between the two women: “one completely open (Schygulla), the other closed (Huppert)”.

These two vanishing points could help define what constitutes Huppert’s art, her stamina, her versatility, her endurance. She is generous, while always keeping something for herself, a hidden part, a mystery; in other words, she is not a Method actress, mining in the intimate corners of her soul for something to flesh her character with. Her work is much more controlled, much more modernist, keeping a clear line between the self and the performance. This allows her to be a perfectionist. In her interview on the AFI FEST stage, she was asked what she considered her best performance. She replied that she is “never” entirely satisfied with her work, that she always looks at it critically to “do better” the next time. You can only do this if you don’t identify fully with the parts you play. This is hard to do, but nobody has ever doubted that Huppert has an iron will.

Two of her films were shown at the AFI. One was Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, which should have been rewarded with an Academy Award for Huppert. But the Oscar went to… Emma Stone for La La Land, which is a gross miscarriage of common sense, because there is no common measure between Stone’s amicable presence and Huppert’s formidable performance. Academy members may have given an award to Stone because they liked La La Land better than Elle – which is understandable, since, going against the grain of accepted “serious” film criticism of late, I don’t particularly care for Verhoeven’s film. It is rumoured that Huppert campaigned hard to get the part, and she was right for she is superb in it. However, presenting Elle as a feminist text, because of its non-judgmental representation of female desire, is akin to a semantic crime. At best, it is a hybrid text, conveying, in a rather touching manner, Verhoeven’s awkward efforts to understand “the feminine”, and walking back and forth a thin line between the accurate and the ridicule. Case in point, for the ridicule: the masturbation scene. Verhoeven must feel very noble and open-minded conceding his heroine, Michèle, the right to pleasure herself, but he imagines the whole thing as if she were a man. Michèle gets aroused by watching her cute neighbour, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), in his garden through a pair of binoculars. And then after she has finished jerking off, she wipes herself with a Kleenex which she discards – and Huppert is fantastic here, for she looks ironical, as if saying “I know it’s not the way it’s done, but I am still doing it, darn it, for it’s a great performative gesture”. I love her at this moment, as she reconnects with all the actresses in the past who have allowed these tiny little breaches between the self and the performance, to express the gap between the way a woman’s part is written and the way a woman acts.

AFI Film Festival

La La Land

For an instance of accuracy – and I love her then too – Michèle, on her way to meeting her ex, Richard (Charles Berling), in a posh restaurant, tries to parallel park in-between two cars too close to each other. She ends up ramming into one. She shrugs as if saying “Too bad…” and upon entering the restaurant, charitably informs Richard that “somebody has smashed up your car”. Her whole character is there: nonchalant, elegant, ruthless, amoral when it fits her, and doing anything possible to protect herself against minor and major inconveniences.

Mia Hansen-Løve’s fifth feature, L’Avenir (Things to Come), also features Huppert in a part that presents interesting similarities with Elle: a strong, independent woman (Nathalie), a disappointing soon-to-be-ex husband, Heinz (André Marcon), the temptation of a younger man, Fabien (Raymond Kolinka), a black cat, a problematic mother (Judith Magre in Elle, Edith Scob in L’Avenir). Yet, instead of Verhoeven’s baroque masculinist projections, we have the best of Hansen-Løve’s artistry – fine realistic and psychological notations that compose a complex portrait that never ceases to surprise us. In her personal plight – facing a new generation of students, the changing mores of the publishing industry, the betrayal of a husband, the illness of a mother, the impossibility of understanding one’s children, the wonderful and annoying bite of unacceptable desire – Nathalie is no less unflappable than Michèle, but L’Avenir presents, from the inside out, a facet of the female experience that can be related to, and, without being obvious or shocking, is a clear jewel of a film.

AFI Film Festival

Things to Come

A Scene by the Sea

There was no overlap this year between the AFI FEST and the AFM, as they were organised consequentially. Previously it was hard but not impossible to drive from Santa Monica where the AFM is held to Hollywood whose Chinese Theatre complex houses the AFI FEST – now the 8,000 or so exhibitors, buyers, distributors, agents and other Market professionals left without a chance of catching a glance of the Festival. And there was almost no overlap between the AFI FEST films and the industry screenings organised at great expense. It’s been my experience, anyhow, that film buyers rarely watch films in markets: the theatres are almost empty. Now with password-protected links, who needs the aggravation of sitting in a dark room when you could be doing something else?

First surprise: the Show Directory booklet was quite slim, and the relative quiet of the Market confirmed this impression. Talking to exhibitors, I was told that a number of them no longer organise screenings, and that the “industry” is not doing so well right now. Hence a sense of slackness.

In Memoriam

For me, AFM this year was structured around a major absence: the Hong Kong/Amsterdam based company Fortissimo had filed for bankruptcy in August. (The company’s assets and name were eventually bought by Isabella Films International BV). Sign of the times – at about the same moment, another respected independent British distributor, Metronome, had also gone “into administration” (the legal term used in the UK). Fortissimo, though, was more than a distributor, it was an institution, a bridge between East and West, a dream. It had been founded 25 years ago by a young programmer for the Rotterdam International Film Festival, Wouter Barendrecht in association with British distributor/producer Helen Loveridge, operating out of a small apartment in Amsterdam. In 1995, Michael J. Werner, a veteran film sales professional from the US, joined the company as a consultant and was working from their Hong Kong office, before becoming co-chairman when Loveridge left in 2000. Werner took over full leadership after Barendrecht’s untimely death in 2007.

Fortissimo was founded in 1991, a couple of years after the Tian’anmen Square massacre, that marks also the arrival of the Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers (He Jianjun, Wang Xiaoshuai, Zhang Yuan) – whose work was either banned or illegal. This was also a time when Western audiences and critics started to get seriously interested in Asian cinema. Finally, the early ‘90s marked the blossoming of the “new Queer cinema”, with the work of Todd Haynes, Tom Kalin, Gregg Araki. Fortissimo’s foresight was to have gracefully and courageously embraced this zeitgeist. Rotterdam constituted a platform where banned Chinese films, not only from the Sixth Generation but from independent documentarists and filmmakers opposing the censorship system – such as Tian Zhuangzhuang with his Lan feng zheng (The Blue Kite, 1993) – could be shown, discussed and written about. At that time of analogue filmmaking, negatives had to be processed, prints to be carried, and Fortissimo played an instrumental role in allowing this precious material to leave the country and reach Australian labs and international audiences. With time, the company struck a deal with Wong Kar-wai’s Jet Tone production company to distribute its films and with the New York-based Killer Films to manage their library. While embracing the development of Thai horror movies, they also supported auteurs such as Kore-eda Hirokazu, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsui Hark, Hal Hartley, Jim Jarmusch and Ira Sachs. In 2014, it was one of “unlikely” Chinese films they represented, Diao Yin’an’s Bai ri yan huo (Black Coal, Thin Ice) that was awarded the Golden Bear in Berlin.

They also produced or co-produced a small slate of films that made a difference: Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2004) and John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (2006) – and were unwavering in their support of Tian Zhuangzhuang’s return to filmmaking after being banned for years.

They were a class act, sharing their love for cutting-edge cinema with the utmost courtesy, even though the sad circumstances of the market that was eventually going to engulf them forced them to be tough negotiators: a one-time screening would usually go for 1,000 dollars (or maybe euros), which made it difficult for non-profit spaces or universities to have access to their titles. Every year in Hong Kong, at the time of FilmArt, the dim sum brunch they graciously organised was a time to meet and relax with friends and like-minded people interested in Asian cinema. They are sorely missed.

And yet…

So, this year at the AFM, friendship and networking seemed to be more precious than ever, and I treasured every opportunity offered to catch up with colleagues from the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Yes, the film industry is suffering, and maybe the AFM is showing this as well, but it remains an important opportunity for forces to regroup. And there were films to see as well. In disorder. Vor der Morgenroete (Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe, 2016), German actress-turned-director Maria Shrader’s Locarno entry and Austria’s Oscar submission, a “conceptual” drama about the years the Viennese writer (Josef Hader) spent in exile between 1940 and his suicide in 1942, shattered by the raise of Nazism in Europe. The film starts with a fascinating sequence showing the preparation of a banquet – the table, the food, the flowers, the staff – organised in Argentina for the writer. Pete Travis’s City of Tiny Lights, an alluring update on the UK film noir genre, with a cynical East Indian gumshoe (a great performance by Riz Ahmed) is asked by a hooker to find her missing Russian colleague/girlfriend – which leads him to deal with his ailing father’s own post-colonial fantasies, address a hidden teenage trauma and take us in an unusual tour of multi-culti London.

I was particularly looking forward to Dante Lam’s Mei Gong he xing dong (Operation Mekong, 2016), which was not completed during my last trip to Hong Kong, as I was curious to see how Lam would deal with the constraints of making a film for the Chinese market (the major producer being the Beijing-based Bona Film Group). So far, the director who has completed the task the most elegantly is Johnnie To with Du zhan (Drug War, 2012). Lam is one step below, so the film, inspired by a 2011 massacre of Chinese fishermen that took place in the Golden Triangle, while engrossing, is still a mix of hits and misses. Lam tries to resolve censorship by turning all the Chinese characters into good people, and all the Thai, Burmese and Laotian gangsters into ruthless agents. One problem with Chinese censorship is that good cops (and only good cops can be shown in a movie) can’t die, so we end up in highly improbable situations to insure the survival of Law and Order – like in the 1990s, when a John Woo hero would walk into a hail of bullets without being killed, and walk and walk… but without Woo’s operatic sense of mise en scène. So it feels a bit silly at times – and some of my Hong Kong friends told me that, while the film was a success in mainland China, SAR spectators were a bit more circumspect. The young Chinese actors (Zhang Hanyu, Eddie Peng, Carl Wu) are sexy and have nice haircuts (or wigs, when they are undercover), there is an endearing/customary tomboy/foil/object of repressed desire in the Chinese cop team (Joyce Wenjuan Feng), toward the end appears an older Thai villain with alluring gravitas, local colour is entrancing, the battles are exuberant – so I had my fun but I reserve the right to wait for Lam’s next Chinese (co)production to see if he will find his way out of a paper bag.      

 

AFI FEST
9-16 November 2016
Festival website: http://www.afi.com/afifest/

American Film Market
1-8 November 2016
Market website: http://americanfilmmarket.com

 

Endnotes

  1. The term Geechee, often used as another term for the Gullah people, originally meant the descendants of slaves living in Georgia, and denotes the language as well
  2. https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion/story-la-rebellion. This print was also shown at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. See http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/festival-reports/unlikely-heroes-the-31st-sundance-film-festival-and-the-20th-pan-african-film-and-arts-festival/
  3. See: http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/feature-articles/wanda/
  4. Born Israel Shapiro in 1915, Paul Jarrico was active in the American Communist Party from 1937 to 1952, having joined the Young Communist League while at UCLA. He started working screenplays for Hollywood in he 1930s, and was blacklisted in the early 1950s for refusing to testify in front the HUAC. He produced The Salt of the Earth (1954) directed by Herbert J. Biberman and written by his brother-in-law Michael Wilson – all three men being blacklisted – and in 1958 moved to Europe where he lived for 20 years.
  5. Alla Nazimova (1879-1945) emigrated from Russia to the US in 1905, became successful on Broadway, and founded her own production company; she was rumoured to be a lesbian, or at least bi-sexual, and having counted among her lovers Dorothy Arzner and Natacha Rambova, Rudolf Valentino’s second wife. She contracted a sham marriage – called “lavender marriage” – with Charles Bryant, a British actor who directed two of the movies she produced, including Salomé (1923), an adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play (with Rambova getting writing credits), that was a commercial failure at the time, but was written about in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon as one of the high points of gay Hollywood in the 1920s, and is now in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress
  6. On Capellani, see Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell: http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2010/07/11/capellani-ritrovato/
  7. Born in Japan in 1889, Ayakawa came to the US in 1911 to study political economics and switched to acting after discovering the Japanese Theatre in Los Angeles Little Tokyo. After his successful appearances in Reginald Barker’s The Typhoon (1914) and The Wrath of the Gods (1914) produced by Thomas H. Ince, and signing up with Famous Players-Lasky, his talent and good looks made him an idol with the female audience and a highly-paid actor as famous as Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. In spite of the scandal it generated for showing an Asian man branding the naked shoulder of a white woman who refused him sexually, Cecil B. de Mille’s The Cheat (1915) was a huge success and was remade several times. For various reasons, he spent much of his time in Europe and Japan in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and was even a member of the French Resistance. Returning to Hollywood in the late ‘40s, he appeared in Stuart Heisler’s Tokyo Joe (1949) opposite Humphrey Bogart, Jean Negulesco’s Three Came Home (1950), Samuel Fuller’s The House of Bamboo (1955), David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, Frank Tashlin’s Jerry Lewis vehicle The Geisha Boy (1958), etc… I am deeply indebted to Center for Asian American Media executive director Stephen Gong for his original research and his curatorial acumen that first introduced me to the Ayakawa mystique.
  8. Preminger’s exact sense of mise en scène made him one of the four filmmakers championed by the “mac-mahonien” group of French cinephiles – the others being Raoul Walsh, Joseph Losey and Fritz Lang. On Preminger, see also: http://sensesofcinema.com/2006/three-auteurs/otto-preminger/.