2009 NZIFF Big Guns

September 13, 2009

PAPER SOLDIER | Alexei German Jr, 2008


If the dishes served up by the likes of Pedro Almodóvar are essentially well-cooked fast food, PAPER SOLDIER is Michelin-star fine dining. Alexei German Jr’s extraordinary film is one of the best directed of the festival, notable for the skill with which it references East-European 60s cinema as much as the choreography of his exquisite tracking shots. The film is a banquet for connoisseurs of world cinema – and it’s witty too.


That said, the humour is as dry as a Kazakhstan steppe, and every chuckle is a barbed dig aimed at the Eastern Bloc intelligentsia for failing to affect any significant influence beyond their self-serving enclaves. And they’re an impotent group, less persecuted than robbed of faith in their efficacy by doubt and fear, which are as palpable as the cold, forbidding climate and featureless landscape of a Soviet launch site. German Jr locates these spiritually bereft lost souls in a bleached palette of turquoise and gold, and his wonderful use of shallow focus underscores his thematic and allegorical intentions with gorgeous sensuality.


It has been billed as the Russian version of Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, a misleading description not unlike the claim that Tarkovsky’s Solaris was the Russian 2001, A Space Odyssey, but maybe the description isn't as shy of the mark as it seems. Just as Kaufman's film offers an acute American perspective of its subject matter, Paper Soldier reflects the introspective style of Eastern European cinema of the day, reminiscent of Tarkovsky, Miratova, Jansco, Makk, Jires, Nemec, Wajda, and others. The allusion to 60s post-syncing in the sound design is masterful, and the use of period music perfectly connotes the era. Subliminal noises, dreams, hallucinations, memory, and time-shifts (familiar devices in films of the period) are handled with seamless subtlety and evoke a dreamlike allusion to a perpetual past. In this respect the film can be read as a comment on cinema, and an homage to one of the great periods in film history – a deeply satisfying one at that.


The recurring appearance of a camel (an animal jokingly described as the result of ‘creation by committee’) could be a subtle dig at the Soviet system. The title is from a song about a soldier who voluntarily steps into a fire not realising he's made of paper, a perfect metaphor for the situation facing the astronauts as well as the nation. It might also reflect the nature of the central character, Danya Pokrovsky, who believes in a world where science and art are not for sale, and who encourages young cosmonauts to ‘serve country and mankind above oneself’. Haunted by his parent’s death under Stalin, Danya smells burnt flesh everywhere, and as his illness intensifies, his conscience becomes increasingly troubled. Meanwhile, at the 10-year commemoration of the launch, men drink while women talk about curtains.


Paper Soldier gives potent expression to the notion that there is no separation between the personal and the political, but above all this poetic work of art is an outstanding cinema. See it!



24 CITY | Jia Zhang-ke, 2008


It terms of slow-burning cinema, few burn as surely as the films of Jia Zhang-ke. 24 CITY is his most challenging to date, and one of his greatest achievements. The ideas implicit in Dogtooth concerning power and submission appear in 24 City with sobering immediacy. The scope of the film is vast, and the measured pace demands full concentration. Part documentary, part fiction, Jia’s genius is in finding an ideal form to serve the film’s thematic complexities. He initially set out to make a film about the dismantling of a military equipment factory known as Chengfa. A real-estate company purchased the site with the intention of building a massive apartment block, and in late 2007 the go-ahead to dismantle was approved. Hundreds of workers lost their jobs, motivating Jia to film the event in order to "use cinema to keep their story from disappearing" as he put it. Their story is typical of 'the long march' towards contemporary Chinese urbanisation, a story that aligns with Jia’s conceptual concerns, and which may have sparked the idea to combine his practise of alternating between documentary and fiction into a single vision.


Jia says that he makes documentaries to discover, and fiction to express. In 24 City, he does both, signalling a formal and aesthetic development for a filmmaker renowned for his artistic rigor and intelligence. The episodic structure of the film comprises nine segments: five interviews with real people and four fictional monologues that cover Chengfa’s early years to the present day. This structure functions as a formal representation of the shift from collectivism to individualism. The film depicts both physical and cultural transformations, making clear that Chengfa is an allegory for an abandoned ethos, just as the 24 City housing complex speaks to the rise very different one. 


24 City is about the dismantling of communality. The sacrifices of previous generations are being broken into chunks and sold to contractors. Watching the film I was reminded of Edward Yang’s comment that wealth was never intended for the people, and that conformism and sacrifice were stressed for the sake of social harmony and security. Nothing has changed, except that there is less harmony and security … unless you can afford it.


The first five interviews are the most penetrative and resonant, probably because they are real people. The last four are actors, which marks a shift to a more analytical mode. Chengfa was like a large family, and everyone played their part. In return, social services such as health and education were provided for workers families. 24 City illustrates the contrast between the submissive attitude of workers then, and the entrepreneurial attitude of today – a complete reversal of the shared responsibility that defined the collectivism of the past. While there is no overt reference to it, the pervasive whiff of Western economic expansion is everywhere. In Jia’s press release, he says that history is a blend of ‘facts and imagination’, carefully avoiding the word ‘fiction’ with its overtone of fabrication. Remembering the past – respecting it, learning from it, cherishing it, living with it – is central to Jia’s cinema, through which he seeks to ensure that China (and the rest of the world) doesn’t forget.



BIRDSONG | Albert Serra, 2008


After flicking through the festival programme, Spanish director Albert Serra casually stated that BIRDSONG (El cant dels ocells) was the masterpiece of the festival. Well, there’s confidence for you! Poetic above all, Birdsong is a glorious work of cinematic art. Apart from Chantal Akerman's masterpiece, no other film in this festival has the same audacious and singular formal rigour.


Like Pasolini’s Gospel According to Matthew, Serra’s account of the journey of the Magi is approached with a matter-of-fact naturalism that neither subscribes to nor refutes the religious aspects of the tale. The characters are unremarkably human – simple people with unshakable faith – but it’s the mystery of their humanity that interests Serra, whose films are a place where the sacred and the profane combine to reveal something like the truth. Striving to glimpse the elevated (perhaps even Transcendental or Eternal) within the mundane, Birdsong is a defiantly minimalist ode to cinematic poetry. Whether it’s a masterpiece or not is irrelevant, and in any event it’s too soon to say, but all self-respecting film-buffs should make an effort to see this uncompromising film – at least once!


Serra’s naturalistic minimalism is not for everyone. Those who saw Honour of the Knights some years ago will attest to the fact that he favours a very measured approach reminiscent of the likes of Straub/Huillet, Bresson, and Pasolini. While the search for the infant Christ constitutes the narrative momentum of Birdsong (such as it is), the story and (most crucially) the telling of it, has been stripped of the conventions and expectations usually associated with biblical epics (or movies in general, for that matter). Serra focuses on the elemental presence of bodies and landscape, the quality of the light, the sounds of the earth and wind, and the sheer time and effort it takes to get somewhere. His films are about the ‘is-ness’ of everything and our visceral connection with it. Every frame of the film testifies to the inherent poetry of existence, coming as close as cinema can to metaphysical truth. For some this is cinema at its most sublime, but for others it’s just three fat guys on a hill.



STILL WALKING | Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2008


Like a number of films in this year’s festival, Kore-eda’s STILL WALKING considers our capacity for squandering familial love. The Yokoyama clan are gathered to observe the 15th anniversary of the accidental drowning of eldest son Junpei, a keenly felt raw-nerve that affects the lives of everyone in this damaged family. The central character (if indeed there is one) is Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), an unemployed art-restorer who lives in the shadow of his late older brother. His defensive resentment is an indication of unresolved tensions within a family used to venting disappointment and pain by subtly swiping at each other. Ryota’s proud father, Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), fears a loss of respect and stature now that he has retired as a doctor, and pretends to busy himself in his office rather than engage with his family. The standards he set for himself and family were obviously high, and he has never forgiven Ryota for failing to be the equal of Junpei. Ryota’s mother, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki, who delivers a note-perfect performance), cradles her loss and pain, and uses it to inflict discomfort on others. We see this at first hand when the boy Junpei saved from drowning (the action that cost him his life), now an overweight man with little prospects, is subtly made to suffer for being alive. Like everyone in this film, he is still walking but barely living.


The themes and emotional dynamics in Still Walking may be sober, but the film is far from dour. It’s a tender, warm, sometimes amusing, but always humane study of regret and loss. In other hands, this could have been an intolerable angst-fest, but Kore-eda’s masterful exposition is free of undue emphasis or grandstanding. He has a sensitive touch, encapsulated beautifully in a sequence with a yellow butterfly. While there are parallels with Ozu, the film has as much in common with Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien in terms of its elegant rhythms and oblique style. Still Walking is a fine example of what cinema does well – conveying the ‘time of being’. Near the end of the film the parents climb the stone steps that feature throughout as a metaphor for the journey of life, and as they move out of frame (and out of the movie), we know that they're climbing out of life.


While the familial dysfunction is palpable, the humanity of the script and performances ensures that the film is balanced and well proportion. One of the characters laments that we can’t predict or control how our children will turn out. Those familiar with the films of Yasujiro Ozu will recognise the line immediately, an indication that the film owes a debt to the great Japanese master. While the film is sure to resonate with Ozu-philes, this is no slavish imitation or homage. Kore-eda’s individual voice is resolutely front and centre.


Beautifully written, performed and directed, Still Walking is Kore-eda’s most resonant and perceptive film to date, a finely crafted addition to an impressive oeuvre. Kore-eda paints with delicate brushstrokes, but just below the surface serenity lies unresolved grief, a recurring theme his work. As one character desperately puts it, "it's just normal family life".



Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira made a handful of films between 1931 and 1965, but in 1972 (at the age of 64, when most people are retiring), he returned to filmmaking in earnest. He made three films in the 70s, seven in the 80s, and at least one a year since 1990. We have been lucky to see many of them over the years, but much of his oeuvre remains teasingly unavailable. Consequently, it’s hard to get a firm handle on Oliveira, although there are one or two certainties.


He has a fondness for literary adaptations, especially by Portuguese writers, and an equal fondness for history and philosophic thought (particularly as expressed in the arts). He is world-wise, has a playful sense of irony and a very dry wit. The influence of Dreyer, Buñuel, and Bresson can be detected in his work, which is characterised by a fondness for allegorical tales with strong philosophic and moral underpinnings, and sensitivity to the ironic tensions between life and art. To quote him, “If you stop, you die; if you keep going, you live. Education is the most important thing. From a government’s point of view, the most important thing must be health. A sick country is nothing. But in second place must be education, then art and culture, which go hand in hand. Knowledge is the essence of humanity, without which we cannot progress.”


ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLOND-HAIRED GIRL is an adaptation of a story by Portuguese realist Eco di Queiroz, a tale about a young accountant who confides to a stranger on a train about falling in love with the titular blond. The train journey frames the narrative as well as the broader implications of the tale, namely, that life is a measured portion of time (stressed by the regular tolling of the town clock, and frequent shots of the town from the same vantage point but at different times of the day) that is compromised by our insistence that it must conform to our expectations. In a nutshell, the story is about the young man’s aspiration to woo and wed (or more to the point, be wedded to) his vision of loveliness, the trials he endures to achieve that aim, and the final unbearable realisation that she is fallible – something his high-minded romantic severity simply cannot endure.


Some critics complain that Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl is old-fashioned and slight, but that’s one of the reasons why it’s so good. Oliveira depicts the conflict between the worldly and the spiritual that – depending on how one reads it – could be a comment on global economic affairs and the attitudes behind them. When the blond-haired girl is rejected at the end, we sense that the final image alludes to something more pertinent than her personal agony.


Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl is a wise study of delusional idealism that recalls Orson Welles’s late 60s masterwork, The Immortal Story. The quality of the craftsmanship is exemplary, and the artistic intelligence behind every aspect of the production reveals the touch of an alert, compassionate, and generous soul. As a contemporary morality tale, Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl is far from the flippant diversion some might have you believe. Oliveira’s miniature is a treasure to be savoured, and the generosity of the filmmaking makes a compelling argument for cinema as art, which (if you let it) will satisfy the head as well as the heart.



UN LAC | Philippe Grandrieux, 2008


Mythic forces abound in Philippe Grandrieux’s UN LAC. With epic imagery of forbidding mountains, dark forests and snow-covered landscapes, this gothic-tinged tale of an isolated woodcutting family and the stranger who wanders into their midst (with an eye for their flush-cheeked daughter), evokes fables of another era.


The beautifully shot images are rich in an earthy romantic primitivism that recalls the influence of David Casper Friedrich on Alexandr Sokurov. Some have likened the visual style to Bela Tarr and Fred Kelemen, but there's a stronger connection to the silent cinema of Victor Sjostrom, Werner Herzog’s Heart of Glass, and the films of Sharunas Bartas, particularly in close-ups on carefully chosen faces, the spare dialogue, and the awareness of forces beyond our control. In a Bartas film such forces are socio-political, but in Un Lac they are fundamental, visceral, and existential.


Un Lac isn't for everyone. The romantic fatalism will irritate some, the mannered acting will annoy others, and some will claim that the film lacks the rigour that could have made it a more persuasive work. But the enclosed world Grandrieux creates has a tactile beauty that few films can equal. The film’s visual poetry and minimalist abstraction suggests that Grandrieux is moving in an interesting direction. His cinema has little use for narrative or characters in a ‘real world’ sense, and his stories are pretexts with which to take the viewer to places where they might connect with something elemental to their experience of the world – fear, desire, the unknown, the crossroad between what we think we know and what we actually feel. In this sense, his films are excursions into the unconscious.


When he talks about films, Grandrieux talks in terms of sensations and impressions rather than ideas. His films are more like dreams or visions, concerned with perception and ‘being’ rather than stories – except in so far as they inform the intensions of his art. In this respect his films strive towards pure cinematic poetry, and any faults one may discern are evidence of the frantic pace he likes to work at and his wish to be “completely invested in the body of the moment”, as he puts it. Whatever one makes of Un Lac, there is no doubt that it is the work of an artist committed to elliptical visual storytelling and the visceral potential of cinema. When it comes to this sort of cinema you simply sit back and allow it to weave its oneiric magic.


Originally published in The Lumiere Reader


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