Toronto: Jia Zhang-ke, etc.
Of the eight TIFFs I’ve attended, I think this year’s was probably the strongest. Unlike last year, I took my laptop with me and fully expected to blog the fest, but it turned out that many of the films I saw were not so casually bloggable. I’m still trying to figure out how to think about many of them.
Of the twenty-five films I saw in Toronto, there were two flat-out masterpieces: Jia Zhang-ke’s Chinese diptych Still Life/Dong; and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes And A Century from Thailand. Other favorites: Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth (Portugal); Alain Resnais’s Coeurs (France); Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates (Turkey); Abderrehmane Sissako’s Bamako (Mali); Sophie Fiennes’ The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema (UK); Hong Sang-Soo’s Woman On The Beach (S. Korea); Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host (S. Korea); Jafar Panahi’s Offside (Iran); etc.
Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life appeared in the Venice line-up as a last-minute ‘secret’ film, won the Golden Lion there over a weekend, and was added to TIFF mid-festival the following Tuesday, causing much (deserved) excitement. The film is set in the Chinese town of Fengjie, soon to be submerged as part of the Three Gorges hydroelectric dam project. There are two storylines, both having to do with spouses trying to reconnect after years of separation.
But the stories feel suitably casual, dwarfed by the breathtaking setting of the river and the mountains which nestle the town and its perpetually sludgy roads. Everywhere we look, the process of demolition is underway as the town prepares for its own disappearance.
Dong, which screened as part of the documentary program, follows one of China’s leading figurative painters, Liu Xiao-dong, as he paints two sets of multi-paneled portraits: one of laborers at the Three Gorges dam (thus its connection to Still Life—we see these laborers and occasionally the same footage in both films); and then of models, probably prostitutes, in Bangkok.
The filmmaker Jia and the painter Liu seem like kindred spirits, and Still Life/Dong is a two-paneled work that is rich in internal resonance. Though it showed on separate days in separate programs, I’d claim that these two films should always be shown on the same bill—they belong together. They also mock the fiction/documentary boundaries we erect around film-works. Yes, Still Life has a plot (however loose), and some professional actors, but most of the faces and all the settings we see in the film are as ‘real’ as in any documentary. On the other hand, as Darren pointed out, Dong has a sequence, in a ‘sub-plot’ involving one of the models watching television and rushing to the train station afterwards, that could easily have been scripted. There’s also the exact same shot of a tumbling wall in both films that is applied to entirely different ends, the exact same event meaning two different things in the two films.
Jia is fascinatingly drawn to the juxtaposition of ‘reality’ and ‘artifice.’ His last fiction film, The World, was set in a Beijing theme park with brazenly fake replicas of the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower. The wind-beaten cliffs and weathered faces of Still Life could not be less fake, but there’s plenty of artifice tucked into the film if you look. Out of the blue, the two stories of the film are bridged not by a normal cut but (I kid you not) a CGI flying saucer that glides from one narrative to another like the bone-turned-spaceship in 2001. (Jia used a similar surprise CGI touch in The World, the candy-colored animations that can be seen in this trailer to the film introduced by Jonathan Rosenbaum.)
Going hand in hand with Jia’s penchant for blatantly—even joyously—inserting these markers of artifice is an attraction to performance. We saw actors mount spectacles in both The World and Unknown Pleasures, and Still Life opens with a gorgeous unbroken panning shot of the passengers on a ferry which includes magic trick acts and a palm-reader. A bit later, four prostitutes step out onto the balcony of a half-destroyed building, posing for a prospective client. A character makes like Chow Yun-Fat the way Michel Poiccard did Bogart in Godard’s Breathless. In Dong, a slow pan across the rain-splattered windows of a van on a ferry shows passengers in a variety of poses: sleeping, worried, reflective, as if each window were a little movie screen. We see the Three Gorges not just in its awesomeness but also in diminutive representation as a painting on a ten-yuan note. Finally, the laborers and prostitutes perform as models for Liu’s paintings in Dong, and Liu himself is performing for Jia as the subject of the film itself.
Jia’s great visual coup here is the use of high-definition digital video, the colors popping like firecrackers: the brownish-red rust of old machinery, the blazing green of grass, etc. In addition, he employs an almost agonizingly beautiful slow pan that tells stories by simply including new information in the frame as it crawls across the landscape or a room. Rob Davis pointed out the amazing depth of focus of high-definition video in these films (I had no idea DV by nature had significantly higher depth of field than film), and Rob’s wife Lorraine Vendrely remarked that the figures of the workers in Still Life were often pitched below the horizon line, with the mountains or the ruined buildings towering over their heads; their body postures even reminded her of the stooped gleaners in Millet. (As I've said before, it's rewarding to 'festival' with friends.)
Argentine director Lisandro Alonso’s Fantasma takes place entirely in a large building, the Teatro San Martin complex in Buenos Aires. The lead actors of his two previous films, La Libertad and Los Muertos (both set in the Argentinian rural wild), wander through the building looking for a screening of Los Muertos. The former gets lost, the latter (Vargas) makes it to the screening, which is attended by him, the security guard and only one other person, a woman who is a sort of stand-in for us, the cinephile audience.
One way to view this film might be as a piece of conceptual art, in that the ideas generated by the film are as important—perhaps even more so—than the actual art object itself. The film is the third and final part of a closed circle trilogy which includes La Libertad and Los Muertos. The very subject of this film is (allegorically, humorously) the state of art cinema in relation to multiplex cinema. The fact that the screening is almost empty and that even the director doesn’t show up for the screening is sadly funny. After the screening, the cinephile walks up to Vargas and tells him how much she enjoyed the film. Vargas says, “I was entertaining myself….watching myself.” (Apparently, this was the first time Vargas had ever seen a film!) Another in-joke that resonates well at a festival: the building in the film is the setting of the Buenos Aires International filmfest, the Toronto equivalent being the Manulife Centre, where we spent most of our days.
I can do no better than point you to some great thoughts on the film by Harry Tuttle, including his assessment of it as “….a dichotomy opposing rural and urban, ancestral forest tradition and cold city anonymity, the personal and the industrial, and even, why not, Alonso's lonely Avant Garde cinema and the indifferent commercial mainstream industry.”
People fled our screening in droves, and afterwards I saw Alonso hanging about outside the theater by himself. Like the woman cinephile in Fantasma, I approached him cautiously and then wound up chatting with him for about fifteen or twenty minutes. Possessing none of Michael Guillen’s admirable interviewing skills, I rambled through some questions and forgot to take notes. Alonso said that his two favorite filmmakers were Tsai Ming-Liang and Apichtapong Weerasethakul and that Fantasma was a comedy and a sort of tribute to Tsai’s Goodbye Dragon Inn. I made the mistake of (albeit gently) bringing up the words ‘documentary’ and ‘fiction’ in the same sentence in a question. He asked me if I liked the films of the Lumière brothers, and when I said yes, he said sternly: “They didn’t worry about whether their films were documentary or fiction, right?” Right.
The new Tsai film, I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone, takes place in Kuala Lumpur and contains more than a few connections to Jia’s film. In Still Life, the town of Fengjie is half-destroyed but the large, ruined building in the Tsai film is only half-constructed, and then abandoned. In both films, migrant laborers are key characters and they have difficulty with spoken language or dialect. Partly as a consequence, there are long stretches of silence in both films. There is a stunning shot near the end of the Tsai film of a building upside down, and when a ripple starts to streak across the image, followed by a floating mattress, we realize that we're seeing the reflection of the building in water. Suddenly, this behemoth structure looks as if it were submerged, exactly as the buildings in Still Life will be....any day now.
Now, a critic’s gotta be honest and true to himself, right? So let me just say this. The Tsai film is terrific but there’s a part of me that misses the productive dissonances of The Wayward Cloud. (To get an idea of what wonderful thought such dissonances can produce, see Adrian Martin et al.’s brave grappling with the film’s ending in Rouge and Harry’s five-part exegesis.) Good though the new film is, it is unlikely to produce such rich critical thought. It feels like an aesthetically safer and more familiar work. But really—next to The Wayward Cloud, what film wouldn’t look safer and more familiar? So, please: ignore my nit-picking and see the new one. It’s a strong film, and I look forward to seeing it again.