By Yun-hua Chen.
Viennale 2013 is, as always, a feast of well designed program and an audience-friendly film festival, with events, talks, DJ-set and parties welcome to all audiences. There are well-acclaimed festival feature films such as Closed Curtain (Pardé, Jafar Panahi and Kamboziya Partovi), Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Nugu-ui Ttal-do Anin Haewon), The Past (Le Passé, Asghar Farhadi), and Jealousy (La Jalousie, Philippe Garrel). The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and Anonym) and Bambi (Sébastian Lifshitz) are curated in the documentary section. The program focuses on the works of Will Ferrell, Jerry Lewis, the mysterious Spanish filmmaker Gonzalo García Pelayo, and the talented young Filipino filmmaker John Torres. We also see the rarely screened serials by Louis Feuillade (Tih-Minh, 1918) and Jacques Rivette (Out 1- Noli Me Tangere, 1979/90). The films of Pelayo are a pell-mell of folkloristic imageries, melodramatic elements, soft porn, and experimental cinema, accompanied by the strong presence of music. After 30 years of absence from the filmmaking scene, Pelayo returns with Alegría de Cádiz, premiered at the Viennale. On the other hand, inspired by a Catholic priest and local pioneers such as Kidlat Tahimik, Mike de Leon and Ishmael Bernal, John Torres, whose complete oeuvres, including his most personal short films dated from 2004, are showcased, demonstrates a natural talent for cinema. At the same time the owner of a studio-cum-mini theater, a singer, a songwriter and a musician, the multi-talented John Torres deals playfully—in his own poetic way—with image qualities, and combines his very personal understanding of individuals, space and memories, “to ease pain through storytelling” according to his own words.
Portrayal of the current crisis is a recurrent theme in Greek festival films, but Runaway Day (Dimitris Bavellas) takes an usually creative and light-hearted approach. Shot in stylish black and white and set in modern day Athens, the film seems at times like Federico Fellini and at times American B-movies of the 1960s. Intentionally rejecting realism and adopting an allegorical form, Bavellas envisions the financial crisis in Greece like a Zombie epidemic. Under this backdrop, Athenians run away from their homes in large groups without explanation, and Athens looks like a ghost town with its metro station completely devoid of any sign of life. This spiritual numbness, paralysis, and general lack of verbal expression are in the vein of Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2009) and Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2010), but Runaway Day goes further with its playful use of black humor and well-designed moments of surrealism. The unusual trio consists of a 37-year-old unemployed and indebted Loukas, who is treated like a child by his mother; Maria, who has run away from her affluent and unempathetic husband; and a lucid observer African Greek girl who silently follows them. Along with aimless drifting, they break away from routines, the society’s original obsession with materialism, and venture into unfamiliar realms such as a hardcore porn cinema, wild nature, and a live concert in the middle of a field. The first sequence of Runaway Day is a brilliant look back at the country’s prosperity and optimism. A mock propaganda of the 60s first shows the expansive Athenian cityscape with a birds’ eye view and firm voice-over recounting how Athens is the best city in the Balkans and will become the financial centre of Europe soon given its rapid economic growth. At the moment that we are about to start laughing for its clear irony, we see black-and-white images of the same quality, seamlessly connected to the previous footage, which capture shots of homeless people and demonstrations in contemporary Athens. This self-conscious juxtaposition already marks the key tone of the film from its start.
In Bloom (Grzeli Nateli Dgeebi, Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß), Young and Beautiful (Jeune & Jolie, François Ozon), and Sheep (Mouton, Marianne Pistone and Gilles Deroo) are three coming-of-age films from three geopolitical and socioeconomic milieus. In Bloom is an eye-opening debut feature film by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß, who dig into some collective memories in Georgia that Ekvtimishvili shares with her peers in the newly independent country. Set in Tblisi in 1992, the aftershock of the Soviet Union collapsing and the Civil War with the breakaway region Abkhazia marked the society with a lot of violence, cruelty, coldness, indifference and misogyny. Intensified by the cinematography of Christian Mungiu’s long-time collaborator Oleg Mutu, the film acquires a sense of history through its bleached colors which enhance blue and grey, appropriate in the setting of chaos and anxiety. With the use of a steadicam, the camera empathetically stays close to the fourteen-year-old Nadia and Eka, who spend their days like all prepubescent school girls gossiping and dealing with bullies, family problems, and not always benign admirers. Both of them strive to come to terms with their dysfunctional families, in which the father is either mysteriously absent or alcoholic, and struggle with a society which romanticizes the practice of kidnapping girls for marriage. The lengthy dance scene at Nadia’s wedding is the highlight of the film, in which Nadia’s best friend Eka confidently dances the men’s dance “Kitauri” while Nadia and other guests’ bodies are carefully placed behind Eka in a circle. The undercurrent emotions within the dance sequence are complex: Eka’s sadness and Nadia’s submission are juxtaposed with the male-centred vengeful culture represented by the gaze of the onlookers. This scene marks the coming-of-age of Eka and the incomplete coming-of-age of Nadia, and their dilemma, as well as everyone else’s, being held between vengeance and forgiveness.
In François Ozon’s Young and Beautiful, the task of growing up is set in a privileged family in Paris. The 17-year-old Isabelle seems to have everything that her peers would want—beauty, youth, wealth, admirers, and a loving reunited family. Yet she is looking for a missing piece, unexplained throughout the film, in her cruising from one man to another as a high-class prostitute. Her journey of self-discovery is further complicated when she encounters a much older man whose tenderness and understanding outperform everyone else’s. In embodying this complex and tormented old soul, Marine Vacth beautifully holds the film together with a mature and subtle performance.
This year’s Viennale also features four impressive transnational Chinese films. Four Ways to Die in My Hometown (Wo Guxiang de Sizhong Siwang Fangshi, Chai Chunya) is a beautiful collection of mysterious and shamanistic tales from Gansu, the Chinese province adjoining Tibet, where the filmmaker was born. With a guitar tune accompanied by melancholy chants flowing in the background across the film’s four sections—wind, fire, water, and earth—the young woman, her younger sister, their father, who spends his time sleeping in a makeshift coffin, and a camel, all drift in a ghost-like way. It is an example of pure cinema, of poetry and meditation. Wang Bing’s ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (Feng Ai), on the other hand, is a down-to-earth documentary shot mostly within the confined space of four corridors. The camera accurately portrays the sense of imprisonment in a mental institution with a non-judgmental gaze. The film smoothly shifts attention from one character to another, and records all the trivial activities of these people’s daily routine in its full duration, including peeing and defecating in the urine container, sleeping, taking medicine from the medical staff, eating food from a big metal bowl, hanging out in the TV room, getting into fights for snacks, and jogging. In this way, the camera depicts human existence and its crudest facets within the dehumanizing mental institution. The sense of temporality is prolonged as we mostly observe them in real time. By placing the spectator in the same gated world as these marginalized characters, Wang Bing questions the institutional definition of mental illness, as well as what it means to be a human being.
Ning Ying’s To Live and Die in Ordos (Jincha Riji), adapted from a true story, is a mature piece of work which manages to maintain enough suspense throughout the film while remaining poetic and full of potent imagery. The film is set in Ordos, Inner Mongolia in the far north of Chinese territory, which is widely considered as a living example of a real estate bubble which turned the place into a ghost town. The film follows Hao Wanzhong’s life track from a beat cop to district police chief, as well as his obsession with detective work and his resistance to pressure from profit-craving companies of real estate and energy, among others. As we follow Hao in his investigation of murder, corruption, social unrest and a gang’s intervention into a workers’ strike, the film exposes a land which is torn between grey urbanscapes and uninhabited rural areas, greed and empathy, wealth and poverty, as well as economic development and quality of life.
In Jiao You (Tsai Ming-liang), Tsai explores the plight and beauty of the economically underprivileged family and looks at the striking discrepancy between high rise buildings constantly being constructed and a group of people who cannot afford even the cheapest rent. The film embodies a pure cinema of sight and sound, of feeling. Playful with narrative time, Tsai’s gaze is calm and patient as always. He features long shots and elaborately detailed mise-en-scène. The father that Li Kang-sheng plays lives in a squat with two young children. The kids, seemingly joyful and unworried all the time, spend their days traversing woods, chasing each other along a golden beach and scavenging in big supermarkets. People brush past without noticing them, apart from the lonely supermarket manager played by Lu Yi-ching. In an extremely emotional shot, the father stands at one of the busiest intersection in the Taipei City in heavy rain, holding advertising signs for luxury condominiums in order to obtain a pitiful wage. His yellow raincoat is so strongly blown by wind that it becomes shapeless and wrinkled. Fighting with the extreme weather conditions, Li starts reciting a well-known poem of the poet of the Tang Dynasty Li Bai, and then he sings it. In this long take, we witness a rarely seen contemplation on the inner world of the middle-aged jobless man, who is a lonely shadow ignored by the whole city and drifts along as if he were invisible. In Tsai’s vision of the post-prosperity era in Taipei, poverty and misery are so striking but so hypocritically disregarded that it almost seems like an exotic fairy tale.
Yun-hua Chen completed her PhD in Film Studies at the University of St Andrews, and is currently working on several academic articles.