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May 20 2018

A Merry May Round Up of Joyous Film Links: Bergman, MAI, Jump Cut, OFFSCREEN, WIDESCREEN and lots more!

LESSON on Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata by Catherine Grant, one of a number of videos made to commemorate this year's centenary of the Swedish director's birth. Don't forget FSFF's earlier entry on Ingmar Bergman studies

Greetings -- it's been a while! Here's a speedy, northern-hemisphere, Spring round up from Film Studies For Free. See below for some especially choice and unmissable items!! More will be added to the below in the coming days.

Remember to follow @filmstudiesff on Twitter and on Facebook for your daily stream of great openly accessible items!

1. Jump Cut

Check out the HUGE new issue of JUMP CUT (58, 2018)
Tributes to Chuck Kleinhans. The future of Jump Cut. Special sections on experimental feature fiction, documentary strategies, international perspectives, U.S. slavery's legal and symbolic remains, radical activism, unruly women, porn again, and book reviews.

See also this excellent SCMS video tribute to Kleinhans here

2. MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture

Exciting launch issue of the new open access journal MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture: "A non-hierarchical journal open to multivalent feminist expression, research & critique of visual culture", featuring:
Follow @MAI_journal on Twitter here

3. CFP for The Cine-Files Special issue on Animals in Cinema

The Cine-Files, Issue 14 (Fall 2018), Call for Papers  [Download as PDF] for a Special issue on Animals in Cinema. Submission Deadline:  July 30, 2018
The Cine-Files, an online journal of cinema scholarship, is now accepting submissions for its Fall 2018 special issue on animals in the cinema that will be edited by Catherine Grant and Tracy Cox-Stanton.  
We seek submissions for scholarly essays (4000-6000 words) that explore the significance of non-human animals in moving image studies.  These essays will comprise the peer-reviewed, “featured scholarship” portion of issue 14.
Since John Berger’s 1991 essay “Why Look at Animals?” studies of animals in visual culture have steadily advanced, culminating in the 2015 anthology Animal Life and the Moving Image (BFI, Michael Lawrence and Laura McMahon, editors).  In this work, scholars employ a diversity of theoretical frameworks to extend many of the insights of animal studies into the terrain of film and media studies.  Issue 14 of The Cine-Files seeks to build on that work, inviting scholars to contemplate the significance of animals in a variety of audiovisual media.
Papers might consider, but are not limited to, the following questions:
  • How do particular films or videos convey or complicate recent scholarly work about the sentience of non-human animals? 
  • What can we learn from an analysis of films that feature animal performers? How does the non-human animal performer complicate our views of film performance?
  • How might we understand the proliferation of online animal videos within the context of anthropogenic climate change and threats of “the sixth extinction”?
  • What role did animals play in early cinema’s era of “attractions,” and how can an understanding of that era help us contextualize contemporary representations?
  • How can we better understand and historicize “the colonialist trope of animalization” (identified in  Unthinking Eurocentrism )—aligning non-human animals with human “others” including racial and/or ethnic minorities, as well as women, LGBTQI and others?
  • How has CGI affected the cinematic figuration of animals? 
  • How has the depiction of animals prompted particularly innovative uses of cinematic language?
  • Is it possible to depict animals in a way that is not “anthropomorphic?” How have particular films challenged anthropomorphic representation?
Please email your essay as a MS Word doc to the editors, removing your identifying information from the essay.  On a separate page, include your name, essay title, brief biographical note, and email address. Consult the guidelines for submissions at
If you would like to submit a video essay for consideration, please contact the editors by email to discuss your idea in the first instance. July 30 will also be the date for submissions in this mode.
Catherine Grant, and Tracy Cox-Stanton,

4. Some recent video essays!


Coffee Break

Gord Rand and Julianne Moore in Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg - 2015)

What If?: Ulrich Köhler Discusses "In My Room"

In My Room
Lately, the Cannes Film Festival has had a great track record premiering films from the Berlin School filmmakers, beginning in 2016 with Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann and then in 2017 with Valeska Grisebach's Western. This run continues with In My Room, the incisive new film by Ade's partner, Ulrich Köhler—the German director's first feature in seven years.
Like Western, it is a sly and restrained revision of a well-trod genre, in this case the last-man-on-Earth scenario. But that comes later; first, we are introduced to Hans Löw's Armin, a very average Berliner chastised at his job for his sloppiness—a television cameraman, he accidentally turns his camera off during political coverage and on during the bits in-between major speeches—and alone in his tiny studio flat. He travels to the suburbs to visit his father and look after his dying and bedridden grandmother, and after a depressed bender wakes up one morning in his car alone. All alone: The streets are empty, cars are marooned as if they'd been abandoned instantaneously. No explanation is given, and after several exploratory scenes of a world absent of people, Köhler jump cuts into a future in which Armin has optimized his life: tanned and muscular, he lives alone in a countryside house tending his farm and animals, attempting run a self-sustaining existence. Inevitably, he finds out that he may not be as alone as he thought.
Told with a precise and restrained style which evenly treats Armin's life before and after this strange world disruption, Köhler has crafted a lean but evocative allegory asking questions about what is essential and makes life worth living. A high concept film paradoxically told in an efficient, underplayed and down-to-earth manner, the seeming simplicity of In My Room belies its primal tale of a mediocre man who has to engage with the world around him to give himself meaning.
We spoke with director Ulrich Köhler at Cannes about inspirations for this unusual version of the apocalypse, his obsession with German politics, and the challenge of writing a movie with such different parts.

NOTEBOOK: There as a big gap of time between your making In My Room and your last film, Sleeping Sickness. Was this a story you felt particularly needed to be told now?
ULRICH KÖHLER: I think it was more personal. I thought that now I could try. I had something like this in mind for a long time, because I really liked some novels that play with this idea that you’re the last man, this castaway idea. Like a novel by Arno Schmidt called Black Mirror, and obviously Marlen Haushofer's The Wall, [David] Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress, and some other books like that. I felt that, for me as a filmmaker, I was ready to do this kind of megalomaniac story that touches so many different issues. It couldn’t have been my first film, if that is the question. I don’t think it’s really a comment on this particular moment of time, though there are obviously some issues that are treated which for me are expressive of our time, like the gender issue, but it’s not...I cannot say it had to be shot now in this moment. In my personal biography, it had to be shot.
NOTEBOOK: Was it a pleasure to strip away the context of the moment, particularly in the second half of the film?
KÖHLER: Yes, it was in a way. Especially after my last film, where I really felt that I fell into the same trap that my character fell in, when I was shooting—a neocolonial trap that I wanted to avoid as a filmmaker. With this film, it was nice to live, to have a context to feel more free from all these constraints I put on myself.
NOTEBOOK: You just associated yourself with your protagonist in Sleeping Sickness. But that description makes it sound like for In My Room, too, you found yourself a bit like the protagonist: freer.
KÖHLER: Yeah, yes. In a way, it was a freedom, but as a filmmaker there was also the constraints of shooting a movie about the last person on earth in a country that has 80 million inhabitants, and a lot of airplanes in the sky [laughs].
NOTEBOOK: When you said this project is a more personal one, how do you relate to it in this way?
KÖHLER: Did I say that? All my films are personal in a way; my fantasy as a writer...well, it’s not that I decide to write like that, but during the writing process retrospectively I realize it’s always about a person that could have been me. One that makes a different decision and takes another path, and thinking that through. “What if?” kind of storytelling. What if I didn’t have a family?  Or, in my second film, Windows on Monday, which was before I had a family, what if I had a child and I don’t love it? There is always this aspect in the writing process.
NOTEBOOK: The films are, in a way, a speculation?
KÖHLER: Yes, a speculation, going through the possibilities.
NOTEBOOK: I’d love to hear you talk to me about your protagonist, Armin. For the first third of the film, he’s a very banal, very normal. Important things are happening in his life, but objectively he’s not a very interesting person. Why did you pick this kind of person as the subject for your story?
KÖHLER: Well, for me it's because he’s detached. The kind of person who refused to grow up, refuses bourgeois lifestyle, but doesn’t have any counter-vision, a positive vision of what his life could be like. I thought it would be very interesting to see what happened to this person when he is forced to decide, to make the most important decision you can make: whether to choose living, and if he does, how do you want to live. That’s probably what makes his character interesting, that he’s forced to answer questions he’s avoided before.
NOTEBOOK: And in constructing the female character, did you imagine the first part of her life that you didn’t show?
KÖHLER: Yes, I did. I wrote some monologues. For me, she’s the contrary: Somebody who probably wanted to create a family and have a certain security, and then she gets thrown into this situation and becomes a nomad, like a cowboy riding into the sunset. Working with my actress but also in writing I had this abstraction, but obviously it’s not shown in the film. Not every actor needs that, but as a writer I need a coherent story, a coherent image. It was still difficult to find that actress; the main actor I found very, very fast, I knew him from another movie and saw him in the auditions for that film, and I already had him in mind. But for the female character, I realized in casting that the image wasn’t as precise, you know? It was really in finding this actress, Elena Radonicich, that really I felt it was right. She was so very autonomous, in a way that the others weren’t. She just felt right that she had lived five years alone.
NOTEBOOK: To go back to Armin, how did you approach the first third of the movie, which is a very delicate balance of observation of regularity and interlacing themes that will be reconfigured in the next part of the story?
KÖHLER: Obviously it touches on some themes that will be taken off of later. The main part, the part where he’s together with his dying grandmother and his father, is really quite autobiographical. That was the year before I shot Sleeping Sickness that my grandmother died and I spent this week in this house with my father, and it really felt like if you open the door maybe nobody will be there. There’s just this breathing person, talking very little. That was one one trigger. There are different elements. Like when you see the first scene of the movie [when Armin's camera is accidentally off], for me it makes sense that the “off” you lose is more interesting than the “on,” and for my main character is in the “off” when he is alone—he finds his true self, in a way. But that part is also a relic from a film project I never realized. I wanted to to shoot a film in the German parliament, part fiction and part documentary. I’m very interested in daily parliamentary activity; I love, for example, Wiseman’s State Legislature.  When I read the paper I read much more the political part. That’s my soap opera. I know a lot about senate elections, stuff like that—I’ve spent a lot of time in the parliament, I know a lot about that process, so that’s where that part came from, I knew this stuff already and decided to shoot that.
NOTEBOOK: Was it tempting, when shooting the story, to have more or less of each of the film’s halves? Once I realized what the film’s twist was—if I can call it a twist—I was surprised by how much you gave us in the beginning. You fall into what seems like the movie and then you fall out of that movie.
KÖHLER: I like this, that it changes completely, that you can never really be sure what arrangement it can take. There was more material—that was also the risk of the film, because when people go to the movies they will know what will happen and will be waiting for it to go there. That’s the dramaturgical risk.  But I felt like the story needs that. I shortened it a little; there was another part of the Berlin part I threw out where Armin had an on-and-off relationship with a woman his age who had a child, but I threw that out—it was too much exposition. All the scenes that are in the first part re-appear in the second part, and it just made sense to me.
NOTEBOOK: Was there a difference in the writing process of the two parts? I would imagine that the first part is more of a dramaturgical challenge and the second part is more practical challenge. On one hand, expositing Armin’s life in Berlin, his psychology and routine; and on the other, defining the world and his actions, his interaction in the world.
KÖHLER: That’s true, it was very different. The first part is more observational, the things I’m talking about are things I know. The second part is more conceptual, a dramaturgical guide. It’s the same, in a way, as with Sleeping Sickness, with the first part being everyday life and the second, Heart of Darkness. That’s the “what if” part of the movie, the second part in both movies. In both cases, also, literary novels that inspired me helped me through the writing process. In the first part, I was really more on my own, trying to organize elements in a way that made sense.
NOTEBOOK: Was it a pleasure to be thinking through mechanisms of survival and lifestyle for Armin, which is a different way of thinking how he exists in the world?
KÖHLER: Yeah. In my childhood—because I grew up in Africa—and later in Germany, I had a godfather who was a hunter who took me into the forest together, we slept in the forest together. There’s this kind of child-like fantasy, and also these novels, like Robinson Crusoe, and so on, that inspired me. It was fun. It was more a process of deciding which elements to throw out—it was very rich in material.
NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me more about this incredible scene where Armin finds a Lamborghini and drives it through abandoned streets. In a film that’s otherwise quite discreet, restrained, and respectful of the character’s experience, we suddenly plunge into his experience and we get a first-person view of driving: We get a sense of his sense of this new freedom. Why did you change the film’s style for this scene?
KÖHLER: I just felt like we needed this element, this one moment where he finds pleasure in this situation. I wanted it to be like a video game, like GTA [Grand Theft Auto]. Also, there we had thousands of possibilities when you start writing, all these elements, as in [Bertrand] Bonello’s Nocturama where the characters are in a department store after hours and can try on anything. But somehow it made sense to somehow reduce it to this one moment of pleasure. Later, he rejects the combustion engine, but he has this one moment where he does this thing he never would have done before. It also is a way for the film to become more abstract, before we lose him and come back to him and he’s a newborn person.
NOTEBOOK: I’m glad you bring up qualities of abstraction, because I found this film on a delicate edge between completely realistic and completely abstract. This is best seen in the relationship between Armin and Radonicich's character, Kirsi. You give us just enough to plausibly built a human relationship—psychological, sexual—but also keep them at a remove, keep the dialogs spare and to a minimum. So the two are held together almost more as an idea….
KÖHLER: Yeah, that was really the balance I was trying to find, I didn’t want it to be a dream of my protagonist, between the projection and the real person. The way you described it, that was what we were working at, really. I was coming from Crusoe to Adam and Eve, and I was in this symbolically highly charged environment and how to deal with it. It was a complicated writing process—how much background do I give this woman? I re-arranged some things so that there was more abstraction when they meet before they come together, and then a bit of everyday life. It was also quite referential to painting, Courbet, and so one. It was a challenging process to structure that.
NOTEBOOK: Do you find this movie in general a hopeful movie? Despite the ending, I somehow found it hopeful.
KÖHLER: That’s nice, I’m happy that you say that. I hope that people don’t see it as a generally pessimistic thesis about the sexes!

Cannes 2018. Correspondences #12: A Generational Romance and Closing Fragments

The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going  correspondence between critics Lawrence Garcia and Daniel Kasman .
Sorry Angel
Dear Danny,
Aside from the closing ceremony, the last day of Cannes features a rerun of the entire competition slate in a number of venues across the Palais des Festivals, which gives lingering festival-goers—or mostly just the tired, sleep-deprived press corps—a chance to revisit favorites or just catch up with missed titles. That’s how I managed to watch Christophe Honoré’s under-seen, somewhat undervalued and resolutely blue (in both tone and color palette) Sorry Angel, an intimate queer relationship drama set in Paris, 1993. The setting immediately recalls Robin Campillo’s recent BPM, a film that fervently fused the political and personal in its depiction of the Paris chapter of ACT UP in the early 1990s. But Honoré’s vision is less propelled by political agitation—though ACT UP Paris is mentioned, no meetings are ever on-screen—than by the personal negotiations of queer existence that ripple across its multi-generational cast. Following an invigorating opening credits montage, Honoré’s camera captures urban spaces and finely furnished interiors, picking up on characters leaving and departing, their relationships to each other mysterious and generously open: An early passage glides along 22-year-old Arthur (Vincent Lacoste), from his (ostensible) girlfriend’s flat to his apartment, shared with his (ostensible) roommate, to a sensual twilight cruising session by a parking lot.
In a bit of cinephilic serendipity, a screening of Jane Campion’s Palme d’Or winner The Piano provides the backdrop for a meeting between Arthur (“like Rimbaud") and Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps), a middle-aged, HIV-positive Parisian writer of some renown. (“A bit too storybook,” says Arthur of the film.) From there, the relationship moves in fits and starts—across well-placed temporal elisions, distant phone calls and florid epistolary text. Although Sorry Angel’s initial efflorescence of emotion dissipates over its considerable 132 minutes, shifting from melancholy to outright maudlin, numerous flashes of pleasure abound, from pleasing planimetric stagings (a luminous nighttime stroll and hotel-front flirtation; a phone call that collapses the space between the two lovers) to the immersive strains of its varied soundtrack (Ride, Astrud Gilberto, an impromptu burst of “Pump Up the Volume,” among others). The image that adorns the film’s poster—of three generations of gay men sharing a single bed—is a crucial one. But the film's essence is contained in what follows: that is, in its observation of one generation slipping away (“We’ll be nothing,” says Jacques at one point), so that the next may have its turn at a hard-won existence; of sorrow blossoming into fulsome, gossamer joy.
Browsing the rerun schedule also offered ample opportunity to reflect on this year's line-up itself, which was notable for the lack of marquee names and thus an opportunity for an entire slate of directors to make their mark. More often than not, however, the relative newcomers failed to deliver: poised to infuse the typically staid, austere competition with sundry genre pleasures, Critics’ Week alums Yann Gonzalez and David Robert Mitchell disappointed with Knife + Heart and Under the Silver Lake; while A.B. Shawky’s debut feature Yomeddine was panned across the board. The notable exceptions, both in the Un Certain Regard section, were Lukas Dhont’s debut feature Girl (which took home multiple prizes) and Bi Gan’s sophomore effort Long Day’s Journey Into Night (which took home none). The standouts of the official selection often saw established directors opting for either considered refinement (such as with Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Asako I & II) or, in fascinatingly contiguous ways, conscious (self-)reflection: Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White, easily the Chinese director’s most self-referential feature; Jean Luc-Godard’s The Image Book, awarded the “Special Palme d’Or” by Blanchett’s jury; Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces, which contemplates not just his own legacy, but that of the late Abbas Kiarostami; and even Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, whose assaultive, challenging vision might have been more productively placed in competition.
Is this evidence of the status quo being upheld? Perhaps. There were certainly a fair share of by-the-numbers art-house offerings (though of varying quality, it should be said): from Pawel Pawlikowski’s accomplished, if unsurprising Cold War, to Kirill Serebrennikov’s disposable Leto and Matteo Garrone’s single-minded Dogman. And the Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week festivals offered less than usual to mull on, so discoveries in general were thin on the ground. Worthwhile entries often saw directors playing with various genres, offering either sly overturnings (Guillaume Nicloux’s To the Ends of the Earth and Jaime Rosales’ Petra); daring fusions (Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s Diamantino); or brazen furtherings (Gaspar Noé’s Climax). But if there's anything that remained consistent across the parallel festivals, it's the fact that socio-political realities seemed to impinge on the Riviera more often than usual.
A film’s politics are inextricable from the conditions under which it’s made and distributed, which ultimately means that the prestige of Cannes offers the highest of stakes. And despite Cate Blanchett’s remarks about eschewing agendas during jury deliberation, the awards handed out on Saturday evening largely affirmed the inescapably political nature of the platform: Apart from the Palme d’Or being handed to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, the awards each (arguably) seem to make either a symbolic, if not overtly political statement: from some fine choices (Samal Esljamova's Best Actress win for Ayka, Marcello Fonte's Best Actor prize for Dogman) to some more dubious ones (Nadine Labaki’s Jury Prize for Capharnaüm). Bemoaning the awards choices, however, is an act of futility; often, it’s the relative elevation (or devaluation) of various films for their topicality (or lack thereof) that leaves room for productive debate: Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass fused political urgency with a force of vision worth grappling with; Nadine Labaki’s Capharnaüm and Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun, on the other hand, were dispiriting, baldly manipulative instances of subject matter and self-importance dominating genuine artistry. Stéphane Brizé’s passionate, agitative At War seemed to resonate at its premiere, but then to dissipate in the international eye, outside the specificity of French industrial labor disputes. And where does a film like Wang Bing’s eight-hour Dead Souls, a largely testimonial documentary about the lingering effects of China’s anti-rightist campaign, even begin to enter the conversation?
So to return to a question you posed earlier: Is Cannes in fact going on the offensive in its assertion of cinema’s continuing vitality and relevance? The evident range in aesthetic vision indicates something of a necessary defensive step—so it remains to be seen whether a subsequent years will narrow that range in a productive, generative manner, or fall back to established norms. In either case, however fractured and dissonant the Cannes can be—and it often is a dizzying affair in that regard—there inevitably remain glimmers of beauty and art that resonate beyond the immediate festival bubble, bolts from the blue that crackle with implacable force of vision. To borrow from The Image Book: “Only a fragment leaves the mark of authenticity.” So as I depart from the Croisette after twelve days of veritable cinematic gorging, it’s such fragments—the sound of Godard’s guttural voice booming through the Grand Théâtre Lumière in The Image Book, for example—that I will cherish in the months (and perhaps years!) to come.
Till next time!

May 19 2018

Cannes 2018. Top 10 & Coverage Roundup

Below you will find an index of our coverage from the Cannes Film Festival, Directors' Fortnight, and Critics' Week in 2018, as well as our favorite films.
TOP 10
1. The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard)
2. Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhangke) & Happy as Lazzaro (Alice Rohrwacher)
4. Burning (Lee Chang-dong)
5. Asako I & II (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
6. Long Day's Journey Into Night (Bi Gan)
7. Dead Souls (Wang Bing)
8. In My Room (Ulrich Köhler)
9. Climax (Gaspar Noé)
10. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)
(Contributors: Gustavo Beck, Annabel Ivy Brady-Brown, Giovanni Marchini Camia, Josh Cabrita, Jesse Cumming, Lawrence Garcia, Daniel Kasman, Roger Koza, Richard Porton, Kurt Walker, Blake Williams)
#1 Daniel Kasman previews the festival| Read
#2 Lawrence Garcia on Everybody Knows (Asghar Farhadi), Dead Souls (Wang Bing) | Read
#3 Daniel Kasman on Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego & Ciro Guerra), Donbass (Sergei Loznitsa) | Read
#4 Lawrence Garcia on Leto (Kirill Serebrennikov), Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski) | Read
#5 Daniel Kasman on The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard), Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhangke) | Read
#6 Lawrence Garcia on Climax (Gaspar Noé), Mandy (Panos Cosmatos), 3 Faces (Jafar Panahi), | Read
#7 Daniel Kasman on 3 Faces (Jafar Panahi), The Load (Ognjen Glavonic), Happy as Lazzaro (Alice Rohrwacher) | Read
#8 Lawrence Garcia on Long Day's Journey into Night (Bi Gan), Asako I & II (Ryusuke Hamaguchi), BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee), The House That Jack Built (Lars von Trier) | Read
#9 Daniel Kasman on Diamantino (Gabriel Abrantes & Daniel Schmidt), Girl (Lukas Dhont), Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda) | Read
#10 Lawrence Garcia on Burning (Lee Chang-dong), Dogman (Matteo Garrone), In My Room (Ulrich Köhler), Mirai (Mamoru Hosoda) | Read
#11 Daniel Kasman on The Dead and the Others (João Salaviza & Renee Nader Messora), Ayka (Sergey Dvortsevoy), The Wild Pear Tree (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) | Read
#12 Lawrence Garcia on Sorry Angel (Christophe Honoré) and closing thoughts on the festival | Read
Wang Bing for Dead Souls
Ulrich Köhler for In My Room
Cristina Gallego & Ciro Guerra for Birds of Passage
Sergei Loznitsa for Donbass
Fabrice Aragno for The Image Book

May 18 2018

Cannes 2018. Correspondences #11: The Dead, the Kyrgyz, and the Writer

The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going correspondence between critics Lawrence Garcia and Daniel Kasman.
Dear Lawrence,
You’ve delved into one of the more bravura and impressive films that debuted in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a film whose considerable vision and ambition has prompted some to question why it wasn’t in the main competition. A far more modest film but one that also appearing as a surprise in this too-often blasé section was a patient and immersive ethnographic fiction, The Dead and the Others. Shooting in the verdant northeastern Brazil in the village of Pedro Branch, the two filmmakers, João Salaviza and Renee Nader Messora, have collaborated with the indigenous Kraho people there to fashion a discreet fable whose pleasures lay more in its observations than its drama. The film begins with a fantastic nocturnal encounter, between Ihjac (Henrique Ihjac Kraho) and the voice of his father, who recently died, which appears bodiless from the pool underneath a waterfall. Ihjac fears to join this spectral, speaking water, and returns to the village to prepare the final mourning feast which will allow he and the rest of the community to forget his father and the past. Married—the young couple are greatly charismatic in their natural chemistry—and with a young child, Ihjac seems to fear the future: Starting to feel ill, an elder diagnoses him as a man who may one day become a shaman–“I don’t want to become a shaman,” he weakly protests—and they send him far away into the local town to get a scientific diagnosis. Humorously informed by doctors that he is suffering from hypochondria, Injac indecisively lingers in the arid and ugly town, unwilling to return to face his father’s death and his ascendancy to greater adulthood.
More poetically titled in Brazilian Rain Is Singing in the Village of the Dead, Salaviza and Messora shot on 16mm to accentuate the earthy tactility of the village life, negating exoticizing pictorialism and staying far away from trying to summarize a life and a culture clearly existing with great fragility on the outskirts modern Brazil. There is next to no tension or dynamism in Ihjac’s limbo now that his father has died, but this bare framework allows the film its humane contrast of village and town life, and its obvious attraction to the more rarefied but hardly alien lifestyle of the Kraho. Hamstrung somewhat by having its extreme modestly drawn out for too long, The Dead and the Others nevertheless is a breath of fresh air at the festival, a relaxed, attentive and caring film with admirably little desire to claim itself for greater things.
Next door in the official selection’s main competition, on the final days of the festival many were avidly waiting to see just how exactly director Sergey Dvortsevoy would follow up his last feature, 2008’s Tulpan. Rumors abounded at the festival that his new film, Ayka, was accepted after the selection committee had only seen some incomplete footage and that it being finished up until the last minute. This happened last year, too, with Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, which screened on one of the last days with no final credits. As with the Jean-Luc Godard and Lars von Trier films that premiered here earlier in the festival, part of the fervor at Cannes is the first-ever encounter with a movie from which few know what to expect. It’s a cherished sensation to have that when the lights go down in the cinema, anything can happen. (In the case of Godard and Von Trier’s movies, we have that phenomena for better and for worse.)
In this sense, Dvortsevoy’s Ayka might register as a disappointment to some: By the end of the first reel, it is clear that the Russian director is following the path set out by the social realist movies of the Dardennes brothers in order to follow a few desperate days in Moscow in the life of illegal Kyrgyz worker Ayka (Samal Yeslyamova). Introduced as she flees a hospital through a broken window just after giving birth, the film with impressive immersion keeps up with the desperate perseverance of this lone woman as she antically searches for any kind of job to pay a vague but dangerously pressing debt, all the while increasingly suffering from post-pregnancy complications. Tearing around Moscow in her vivid blue parka during an apocalyptic blizzard, the world seem to be fighting her at every step and yet she won’t stop. Her brief moments at rest to gather her breath—collapsed momentarily on her flophouse cot, or taking over briefly for another Kyrgyz at a veterinary clinic—seem like ecstatic relief by mere comparison.
As resolute and grim as its heroine, Dvortsevoy’s wrenching drama is a bastion of empathy and concern. The people in Moscow are casually uncaring, whether fellow Kyrgyz looking out just for themselves or more moneyed Russians who do not take the time to see this young woman’s implacable effort or her obvious intelligence, bured as it is in the eyes hidden behind a head bowed by extreme exhaustion and pain. The camera, forever following this woman during her travails, often seems her only friend. But Ayka is no saint, she also effects the blinkered approach to survival that many of the Kyrgyz women she encounters—several veritable doppelgängers, one of whom advantageously took over her job while she was hospitalized—often cruelly exhibit. When she first returns to her curtained cot at the tenement for illegal immigrants, the camera pans down to a series of photographs that we assume is explicating her family and suggesting her humanity: No, a moment later Ayka sweeps them all away, yelling at an off-screen woman that "this is my shelf!" She then collapses for but a few minutes behind pinned curtains in the only semblance to privacy she has beyond stolen moments in public bathrooms. Shooting in 35mm, the film’s exteriors are assaulted by the blizzard while the interiors—basements, unlit stairwells, anonymous hallways, janitor closets—have the pallor of the city’s dirtiest snow.
Ayka’s single focus unfortunately also means it presents a drama of limited complexity. But that single focus is powerful: The film precisely evokes the fact that for many the effort to survive is as laborious as any job, and one ruthlessly unrewarded. With her debts mounting and her health failing, we are with this bedraggled but unfailing 25-year-old Kyrgyz at a moment when that labor—the labor of living—takes its toll economically, socially, and bodily. She frantically circulates among her poor network of connections, trying for service sector jobs, but with only an expired work permit as documentation, all are to no avail. Ayka changes SIM cards to avoid debt collection, and her in her one call home to her family explains she doesn’t want to be poor like them, as “there’s no life” for the poor.  How she defines her life at that very moment, between debt and death, is impossible to say, and most films of this type might present her character in pure opacity, but in Yeslyamova’s face, radiating Ayka’s fervid nature as well as her extreme fatigue, we see life defined as extreme pertinacity. As familiar as it may seem, Ayka is a bracing dose of the kind of allegiance cinema can have with those for whom simply existing at all is never a simple matter.
At a film festival, where one film viewing follows another with an eye only to the logistics of schedules rather than resonance between experiences, the only rationale for following the grueling vision of Ayka with Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s three-hour-long new film was simply that it premiered next. In fact, it premiered last: The Wild Pear Tree is the final competition title to show at the 71st Cannes Film Festival, which has not opted for a closing night film this year. Ideally such a slot in the schedule might be filled with something fun or at least easy-going, seeing as the press corps is at their most weary by this point, and if one knows the slow, solemn cinema of this Turkish master—whose last film, Winter Sleep, won the Palme d’Or—this placement almost seems a provocation on the part of the programmers.
Yet The Wild Pear Tree proved immediately engrossing, like that wonderful experience of starting a hefty book late at night and finding oneself reading until dawn. Expanding upon Winter Sleep's conversation-heavy approach that signaled a shift in Ceylan's style towards discourse, his new film tells a story that one is more likely to find in American independent cinema, that of a young man transitioning from youth to adulthood in the limbo between school and life. After graduating college, Sinan (Aydin Doğu Demirkol), an aspiring writer, returns to his family home to Çanakkale (where Troy is thought to have been located) to try to publish his book of observations about the region's lifestyle and take a exam to determine where in the country he can teach. His father Idris (Murat Cemcir) is an inveterate gambler supposedly in recovery, but it isn’t one minute after Sinan gets off the bus in the town square that a local starts pestering him about his father’s debts. It turns out few have respect for Idris—his wife (Bennu Yıldırımlar) and children included—a man of affably obsequious manner, ingratiatingly asking for favors and making excuses with a wry, twinkling eye. But Sinan is hardly better: There is no less likable protagonist in a film I saw here in Cannes. Arrogant, opinionated and outspoken, Sinan seems to practically heckle anyone he talks to with a snide smirk and passive aggressive sarcasm. He’s a young man trying to be a young artist, stumbling professionally, ashamed of his family, and irritated by the others around him who he engages in conversations that often tip over into arguments: An old crush of his from high school, a local writer Sinan clearly thinks is a hack, a patriotic businessman who is a patron of the arts ("Education is great, but this is Turkey—you have to adapt"), two young imams of differing opinions, and, of course, his parents. These long, drawn-out and sometimes spellbinding conversations, which, make up the bulk of Ceylan's drama rather than a straightforward story, all revolve around frustration over progress, and whether things have the possibility of change: feelings for other people, habits and vices, the old generation and the new, and the purpose of art and religion in Turkey at this moment.
To all of these conversations Sinan brings a quietly seething rage, yet as he wanders around town he disdainfully implies that it is those around him who should do something, change things, about this rather than he. Describing his creative work as “free of faith, ideology, and allegiances,” Sinan pompously sees his own existence as the righteous ideal others should bend to, a progressive. He claims to be searching for life’s secrets in his prose, but in Çanakkale he mostly comes off as unforgiving, misogynist, and frequently cruel—and for all we know, a mediocre writer. His dreams are fearful and leaden with symbolism of his rural family origins; and in his waking life, his main action is to pester and judge. In Sinan, Ceylan gives us an impressively detailed, if occasionally ponderous portrait of a new generation of young men in Turkey, one unmoored from established positions and instead exhibiting a contradictory blend of impulses and beliefs. His is a rich, difficult character,  and even after three hours of observing and listening to him, I’m still not quite sure what he stands for, where all his anger comes from, or what he desires to love in life. While not a film with much deep mystery, Ceylan has left us with a hero who is one himself.
That's a mystery I'll take back home with me, Lawrence, along with those proposed by The Image Book, Asako I & II, Ash Is Purest White, In My Room, and the other movies we've found here that thankfully ask more questions about this world than answer. You're lucky enough to get one more day in Cannes, and so as I take off, I will look forward to your final thoughts on the festival.

Cannes 2018. Awards

Palme d'Or: Shoplifters directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (read our review)
Special Palme d'Or : The Image Book directed by Jean-Luc Godard (read our review)
Grand Prix: BlackKkKlansman directed by Spike Lee (read our review)
Jury Prize: Capernaum directed by Nadine Labaki
Best Actress: Samal Yeslyamova for Ayka (read our review)
and Jafar Panahi & Nader Saeivar for 3 Faces (read our review)
Border directed by Ali Abbasi
Prix d'interpretation: Victor Polster for Girl (read our review)
Prix de la mise en scène: Sergei Loznitsa for Donbass (read our review & watch our interview)
Art Cinema Award: Climax by Gaspar Noé (read our review)

Apprentice ~ Tu Xing (Boo Junfeng, Singapur 2016)

Boo Junfengs indonesisches Drama Apprentice aka. Tu Xing (2016) ist ein reduzierter, auf kleiner Flamme köchelnder slow-cinema Gefängnis-Film, der mit der Zeit aus seinem Inneren heraus eine mächtig bedrohliche Spannung aufbaut.

 Das liegt einerseits daran, dass im Verlauf der Handlung noch mindestens zwei bis drei weitere, tieferliegende Schichten an die Oberfläche drängen, die für Konflikte sorgen. Andererseits steigt der Druck, der auf der Hauptfigur namens Aiman (Fir Rahman) lastet, enorm an. Er spielt seine Rolle mit großer Selbstbeherrschung, die seine Gefühle unterdrückt. Dass er jemand ist, der zu Gewalt neigt, sieht man zwar nie im Film selbst, doch ergibt sich das aus seiner Biographie: Sohn eines Drogendealers, Mitglied einer Jugendbande, später selber Pusher. Man wartet geradezu darauf, dass Aiman explodiert.

 In diesem Film hat man es also mit einer anderen Perspektive wie sonst so häufig zu tun: nicht die Insassen stehen im Zentrum des Interesses, sondern er ist aus der Sicht des Wärters gedreht - eines Vollstreckers mit dem Strick. Denn in Singapur gibt es - bekanntlich - noch die Todesstrafe. Und so gerät Aiman bald in eine Zwickmühle, als ihm der Job als apprentice des chief executioners angeboten wird. Dass Aiman noch eine persönliche Rechnung mit ihm offen haben könnte, dämmert ihm erst später im Film.

 In einem Nebenhandlungs-Erzählstrang geht es noch um seine Schwester Suheila, die einen australischen Verehrer geangelt hat. Dieser will sie alsbald ehelichen, weshalb die Schwester an die Ausreise nach Australien denkt. Aiman verschließt sich dieser Entwicklung vollkommen, würde sie ihn doch völlig auf sich selbst zurückwerfen. Die Familie ist zerbrochen. Der Vater tot, die Mutter durch Krankheit verstorben. Die Schwester weg. Aiman ist sozial genauso isoliert, wie die Gefangenen, die in ihren Zellen hocken und auf Nachricht von der Familie warten. So oft Aiman auch auf sein Mobiltelefon schaut - es will kein Anruf kommen.
 Dass der Film auch wie nebenbei die moralische Frage nach der Todesstrafe verhandelt, muss beinahe gar nicht mehr erwähnt werden. In einzelnen Gesprächen zwischen den Wärtern, im Zusammensein mit den Angehörigen, im Leid, das überall entsteht - der Film stellt immer wieder die Frage nach der Verhältnismäßigkeit des Urteils und nach dem gesellschaftlichen Nutzen - dabei aber, ohne didaktisch zu werden.

 Apprentice lief 2016 in Cannes in der Sektion Un Certain Regard und war 2017 die offizielle Einreichung Singapurs für den Auslands-Oscar. Ein ruhiger und zugleich hochspannender, wie auch moralisch komplexer slow-cinema-Film südostasiatischer Provenienz und Durchschlagskraft. Sehr sehenswert.

Michael Schleeh


Are You Ready For A Feature-Length Version Of The ‘B.C.’ Comic Strip?

A feature film adaptation of the long-running comic strip "B.C." is being prepared for 2021.

The post Are You Ready For A Feature-Length Version Of The ‘B.C.’ Comic Strip? appeared first on Cartoon Brew.

Short Pick of the Day: ‘Bloop’s Birthday’ by Julian Glander

It's Bloop's BIRTHDAY! Everyone's having a PARTY! What could go wrong?

The post Short Pick of the Day: ‘Bloop’s Birthday’ by Julian Glander appeared first on Cartoon Brew.

Barely moving pictures: Kiarostami’s 24 FRAMES

24 Frames (2017).

DB here:

It might seem an act of vandalism. To overwrite one of the world’s most famous paintings, the elder Pieter Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow, with digital effects could be condemned as vulgar at best and scandalous at worst. In the lower left, we see a dog pissing on a tree. Yet no one ever accused the late Abbas Kiarostami of bad taste. Of weirdness, yes: His Lumière tribute (1995) consisted of a close-up of a frying egg.

Eggs aside, Kiarostami’s experiments mostly have a stubborn stringency. He made a film wholly out of reaction shots, and another out of static takes of landscapes. Yet neither was an arid exercise. Shirin (2008) yielded poignancy as it let us study women responding to a romantic spectacle (film? theatre piece?). The minimalist Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003) was at once meditative and sensuous, speckled with moments of relaxed humor (the parade of the ducks) and building to a curious suspense, as we stare at brackish water trembling in a downpour.

So when the first segment of Kiarostami’s 24 Frames (2017) decorates Bruegel’s masterwork, we ought to expect that something’s up. The explanation offered in the film’s prologue is that the filmmaker is curious about what happens around the instant portrayed in the image.

For 24 Frames I started with famous paintings but then switched to photos I had taken through the years. I included about four and a half minutes of what I imagined might have taken place before or after each image that I had captured.

This declaration, apparently opposed to Cartier-Bresson’s doctrine of the “decisive moment,” leaves creative wiggle room. Kiarostami and his colleagues used digital manipulation to alter his stills, adding layers of figures and movements.

But how do we determine the punctual instant of each of the twenty-four shots? What’s the before or after? Many shots contain several moments of pause that might be the original frozen moment, but Kiarostami doesn’t give them special emphasis. After the Bruegel, we get twenty-three gradually changing natural scenes, nearly all mini-narratives based on stasis, rhythmic cycles, hesitations, and bursts of action. Five showed Kiarostami venturing into the territory of Structural Film, and especially the open-air tendency mastered by James Benning. With 24 Frames we get that monumental impulse recast by photorealistic animation: landscapes teased into little stories by the miracle of rendering, mo-cap, and drag-and-drop.


The birds and the beasts were there

The Bruegel is defaced for a reason. The original painting lays out strategies that the following sequences will pursue. Human bodies will play a subsidiary role; they appear in only two sequences, and, like Bruegel’s hunters, they are mostly turned away from us. We’ll also see snow, birds, dogs, trees, a scraggly bush, and water (the frozen pond). Just as important, Bruegel’s composition warns us how to watch. He draws our eye into the distance, and there lots of tiny figures will grace the scenes ahead.

Kiarostami’s decorations insert more previews. He introduces a herd of cows, blatantly fake falling snow, smoke that prepares us for mist and cloud formations. Dogs and birds are set into motion and given sounds; we’ll spend a lot of time tracking these vagrant creatures, and their cries will help us navigate the frames. The revised painting becomes a matrix of pictorial and auditory motifs that will be combined and varied throughout the movie.

Eventually the landscapes will include a wider menagerie, including lions and horses. At one point a duck seems to size up a possible mate, who approaches from the distance.

As here, most shots are centered, with the primary action taking place in the central third and sometimes accentuated by an aperture. The apertures often get geometrical. After several open landscape shots, the sixth sequence introduces a major compositional formula–the grid, typically a window, that will striate and cross-hatch our view. It yields a sort of Advent-calendar effect, as we follow birds or beasts hopping from one cell to another.

More variation: Most of the shots are planimetric. The camera is fixed at right angles to a background plane, and figures move horizontally. As the film goes along, though, an oblique angle may show up, as with the duck courtship. Kiarostami applied planimetric framing brilliantly in Through the Olive Trees (1994), but there too it interacted dynamically with less rigid compositions.

Maybe this is Kiarostami’s real Lumière homage. As in the earliest staged films, the single shot is given a simple arc. Figures arrive in the frame, do something, then depart. But sound is tremendously important too. Quiet activity is interrupted by brusque action–too often, a gunshot. More than you might expect, violence provides a spike of action before calm returns.

What holds these crisp, gorgeous shots together? Pairings, for one thing. The creatures we see often become couples. Lions mate, birds scrap with each other, ducks flirt, deer double up, and one gull mourns a fallen companion. Yes, I’m indulging in anthropomorphism. This movie firmly encourages you to try mind-reading Nature’s kingdom.

There’s a trace of surrealism. Some dreamlike images, impossibly hard-edged, are reminiscent of Rousseau. Sheep in a snowstorm huddle while a dog stares out at us and a wolf prowls in the distance. You might think of Paul Delvaux when you see a balustrade that has been built athwart rolling surf, as gulls squat placidly on the poles beyond.


Not least, I think, Kiarostami is responding to one problem of digital cinema–the way that a fixed digital shot makes certain portions of the frame go dead. Photographic film keeps the whole frame nervous, thanks to its teeming granular structure, but image compression simply reiterates “unchanging” information until something moves. When an area doesn’t harbor motion, it looks like a slice of stillness.

Kiarostami exploits this feature of the medium. Again and again, his image seems preternaturally frozen, a nature morte, before it twitches back to life. The effect, to recall his before-and-after idea, is of a still image reanimated. An inert animal seems dead to the world before we detect a breath or a shift of position. The most striking example seems to me the soft silhouette of a bird, a mere lump for seconds on end.

Rudolf Arnheim would have loved the fluid play of Gestalts that this simple composition arouses.

To show you more would spoil the pleasures of this delightful, melancholic, rapturous film. Let’s just say that it ends with a human figure slumped over and turned from us while the wind shakes trees outside a window. Warmth and drowsiness inside, a mild tempest outdoors. But in that same shot, a radiant human face, brought to slow-motion life, turns to us before it surrenders to a kiss. The fact that the face belongs to Teresa Wright, in one of the greatest films of the 1940s, ends Kiarostami’s career on a note of gentle jubilation.

Thanks to Brian Belovarac of Janus Films for help with this entry. Thanks as well to Jim Healy, Mike King, and Ben Reiser of the Wisconsin Cinematheque.

24 Frames is being circulated to theatres and museums; please try to see it on the big screen, where all the little details can pop out at you. Eventually, it will show up on disc and FilmStruck‘s Criterion Channel.

For background on the making of the film, see the Janus press page. Imogen Sara Smith offers a sensitive appreciation in “In Our Time: Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames” on the Film Comment site. For more on Kiarostami, including Certified Copy (2010), see our blog’s tag. I discuss his planimetric approach in Through the Olive Trees in On the History of Film Style, soon to appear on this site in an updated pdf.

24 Frames.

May 17 2018

Cannes 2018. Correspondences #10: Dogs and Disappearances

The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going  correspondence between critics Lawrence Garcia  and Daniel Kasman .
Dear Danny,
Expectations can indeed be thrillingly confounded. But often equally satisfying is seeing promise fulfilled, as is the case with Lee Chang-dong’s standout competition entry Burning, the South Korean director’s first film in eight years and a consensus masterpiece, if its average 3.8 rating on the Screen International jury grid (surpassing Toni Erdmann’s previous record of 3.7) is any indication. A steady follow-shot picks up Jonhsu (Yoo Ah-in), a barely-employed, aspiring writer, as he makes a delivery to a Seoul department store blowout sale, but ends up leaving with Haemi (Jun Jong-seo), a dancer who claims to have known him from his rural hometown. An uneasy tryst in a cramped apartment follows soon after, with Lee’s camera craning around the lovers to settle on a fringe of light reflected by a nearby tower.
“What kind of story are you writing?” someone asks the listless protagonist, whose floating discontent is palpable from frame one. Adapted (and expanded) from Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning” and co-written with Oh Jung-Mi, Lee’s film is a sinuous evocation of a thriller, yet somehow devoid of outright incident. A trip to Africa leaves Jonhsu with the task of feeding Haemi’s notoriously shy cat, whom he never sees; her return with Ben (Steven Yuen), wealthy, worldly and mysterious (a Korean Gatsby, in Jonhsu’s assessment), leaves him with a new acquaintance, but without a girlfriend. Meanwhile, Lee’s camera moves with assurance, capturing an awkward dance and the pulsing gyrations of a club with equal acuity. A shared joint between the three at sunset—the starting point of Murakami’s story—occasions two revelations: Haemi’s melancholy desire to “vanish like a sunset” and Ben’s aberrant obsession with burning abandon greenhouses. (The “best pace”? One every two months, Ben tells a slack-jawed Jonhsu.) When two weeks later, Jonhsu runs into Ben but remains unable to reach Haemi, the details quiver with possibility. Hong Kyung-pyo’s limpid cinematography renders noir-ish stalkings and sordid thriller scenarios in frigid shades of blue and burnished orange; Kim Da-won’s bass-y, nerve-jangling score quickens the pulse; a sense of malice thrums beneath placid surfaces and smooth exteriors. Always, Lee’s patient, expansive vision aims to reveal. If Secret Sunshine was a methodical excavation of melodrama, Burning is a masterful explication of “simultaneous existence.” It’s a film that understands the power of suggestion—the force of a silent, fiery nightmare—and “rings to the very bones.”
Whereas Lee is able to achieve scalpel-like precision and luminous intensity with Burning, Matteo Garrone achieves only blunt, sledgehammer force with his competition entry Dogman. Inspired by a gruesome 1980s Italian homicide case, the film observes diminutive, servile dog-groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) and his uneasy existence in the surrounding ganglands of Rome, beset by the coked-out, cruel aggression of ex-boxer and petty criminal Simone (Edoardo Pesce), who periodically brings him on odd jobs. (A scene with a half-frozen Chihuahua demonstrates both Simone’s unthinking cruelty and Marcello’s gentle naïveté.) An early scene hints at a sense of community—of genuine place—surrounding the brutal, linear trajectory, but Garrone’s camera often seems more interested in sordid escalation than genuine exploration, some brief passages aimed at locating a sense of human dignity (with Marcello’s daughter, primarily), notwithstanding. Entirely fitting, then, that in the final wide-shot of Marcello, alone, surrounded by crumbling facades, humanity itself seems to have disappeared.
That very literalization is the fiendishly clever hook of Ulrich Köhler’s In My Room, which follows Valeska Grisebach's Western as the year’s Berlin School entry in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section. What initially looks to be a wry political comedy quickly morphs into a character study of Armin (Hans Löw), middle-aged and somewhat depressive, as he returns to his hometown to visit his dying grandmother—and that's just the first of its transformational pivots. How better, after all, to examine a man's loneliness than to have humanity disappear around him? This is the first of Köhler’s that films I've seen, but I was immediately taken by his methodical matter-of-factness, particularly regarding the sci-fi development of the story, which registers less as a twist than a rippling psychological extension. Armin’s bafflement initially gives way to despair (involving a failed suicide attempt and a bloodied canine), but then transforms convincingly into a strange wonderment: A single cut takes us from urban disarray into pastoral calm, with the time jump signaled by Löw’s newly-toned physique. (It’s a transformation that brought to mind the shift of Melancholia—though Köhler’s methodical genre-bending is far from von Trier's apocalyptic enormity.) “I want to be independent,” declares the last man on earth, a statement that Köhler’s protean vision bears out remarkably well, with a largely unemphatic, unadorned camera style that smooths out the variations and shifts in genre. (A pivot in the second hour, involving yet another bloodied canine, is finely judged.) Procedural pleasures (the construction of a hydro-electric power source) intersect with goofy, liberating detail (an impromptu dance at a gas station). There's an evident pleasure the film takes in the act of learning, foremost. After all, what else is one to do when the world becomes one’s room?
Another film that understands what it's like for the world to be contained in a single room (and which also features another canine, un-bloodied this time): Mamoru Hosoda's animated Directors' Fortnight entry Mirai, about a four-year-old boy, Kun (voiced by Moka Kamishiraishi) whose existence is upended by the birth of his younger sister. Suffused equally with the casual enormity of childhood and the dawning melancholy of age (in that regard recalling Takahata's Only Yesterday), it's a film that leaps and bounds through time, attuned to both sense memories and whimsical flights of fancy: A garden suspended between a playroom and dining room becomes a veritable arena of possibility. A splash of rain sweeps Kun up in a gleaming silvery spiral, bearing him back to an afternoon of his mother's childhood; a bicycle lesson occasions an untold remembrance of Kun's grandfather, who piloted fighter planes in WWII and was injured thereafter. In the film's most memorable passage, a petty tantrum leads Kun to the purgatory of a gleaming train station, its cavernous, geometric spaces and teeming activity, then segues into a colorfully visualized dive into a family history: a foray into the improbable butterfly effect of a single existence. Unabashedly goofy, occasionally treacly, but often enchanting, Hosoda's film captures both the elasticity and rigidness of childhood: a form of confinement that nonetheless contains entire worlds.
The festival is coming to a close, but it’s films like these that make me feel like there’s still so much to discover.

Paramount Animation Head Mireille Soria Will Keynote VIEW 2018 Conference

The VIEW Conference has announced an impressive list of speakers for its 2018 event.

The post Paramount Animation Head Mireille Soria Will Keynote VIEW 2018 Conference appeared first on Cartoon Brew.

The Chamber Piece: An Interview with Fabrice Aragno

After premiering The Image Book (Read our review here) in Competition at the 71st Cannes Film Festival, we had a chance to sit down to discuss the film with one of Jean-Luc Godard's key collaborators: the editor, cinematographer, and producer, Fabrice Aragno.

Short Pick of the Day: ‘The Loaf Zone’ by Christopher Rutledge

The bizarre Loaf Town is explored in scenarios that range from the absurdly mundane to the insanely absurd.

The post Short Pick of the Day: ‘The Loaf Zone’ by Christopher Rutledge appeared first on Cartoon Brew.

May 16 2018

Watch Hayao Miyazaki’s Eulogy For Isao Takahata

Hayao Miyazaki has spoken for the first time about his business partner and colleague Isao Takahata, who died last month.

The post Watch Hayao Miyazaki’s Eulogy For Isao Takahata appeared first on Cartoon Brew.

All About Sylvia Chang

If you wanted a crash course in Chinese language cinema of the past 40 years, you could do a lot worse than the series playing at the Metrograph from May 18 - 27 built around the career of Sylvia Chang. An actress, writer and director of tremendous accomplishment (as well as popular singer and playwright), Chang has been a major figure since the mid-1970s, playing important roles in both the Hong Kong New Wave and New Taiwanese Cinema, working with key directors King Hu, Ann Hui, Tsui Hark, Edward Yang, Stanley Kwan, Johnnie To, Mabel Cheung, and Ang Lee. She’s played waifish ingenues and hard-nosed career women, exasperated mothers, bohemian artists, bourgeois matrons and ass-kicking cops. As a director, she’s brought special focus to women’s changing roles in domestic and family melodramas, creating sophisticated works that straddle the line between mainstream and art house. The Metrograph is playing 15 of her films, ten in which she’s the star and five which she’s the director. The series includes most of her best films: bona fide classics, underrated masterpieces, hard-to-find archival prints and recently restored works, ranging in genre from musicals and comic farces to romances and serious dramas. It’s a nifty encapsulation of one of the singular careers in contemporary cinema.
Sylvia Chang was born in Taiwan but spent time in her youth in both Hong Kong and the United States. She started out as a supporting player at the Golden Harvest studio in the early 1970s, though without much success (she did pick up a Golden Horse award for Supporting Actress in the 1976 Taiwanese film Posterity and Perplexity). In 1977, she appeared opposite Taiwanese star Brigitte Lin in Dream of the Red Chamber, an adaptation of one of the great classical novels of Chinese literature. The film was part of an attempt at reviving the huangmei genre, a peculiar musical style something like an operetta, with lush costumes and sets telling stories of romantic tragedies from China’s literary and folkloric tradition. Huangmei films like The Love Eterne, The Enchanting Shadow and Diau Charn had been the specialty of the Shaw Brothers studio in the 1950s and early 1960s, before they shifted gears into wuxia and kung fu movies. The leading director of the style was Li Han-hsiang, and Dream represents Li’s return to the genre after a decade spent in Taiwan trying to build a film industry there independent of the major Hong Kong studios (with limited success). As was conventional in huangmei opera, all the major parts, male and female, are played by women, which is why Brigitte Lin is playing the lead role as the adored son of a wealthy Qing-era family. He falls in love with his cousin, played by Sylvia Chang, a delicate, earnest, yet sickly young woman. The tragedy comes when Lin’s family schemes to have him marry another woman, without his knowledge, which breaks everyone’s heart with all the usual dire consequences. The film is unusual in the huangmei canon in that the first half hour or so is more or less a normal film, with most of the singing confined to an off-screen chorus. But as the sense of emotional doom builds, more and more of the film is expressed in song, until it becomes a full-blown opera by the end. Lin and Chang too bring a different dynamic to the genre than their predecessors, a more modern approach to acting than 60s stars like Betty Loh Ti and Ivy Ling Po. It’s a film out of time, straddling past and future.
One of Li Han-hsiang’s protégés at Shaw Brothers was director King Hu, who directed a huangmei film of his own (The Story of Sue San) before revolutionizing wuxia cinema with a string of highly influential works: Come Drink with Me at Shaw Brothers, and Dragon Gate Inn and A Touch of Zen in Taiwan, where he had followed Li in the late 1960s. In 1979, Hu directed two films made with Taiwanese money but shot in Korea, Raining in the Mountain, on which Sylvia Chang served as an assistant, and Legend of the Mountain, in which she co-starred. I wrote about the newly restored long version of Legend here at the Notebook a couple of months ago, so I won’t go into detail about it here. Suffice it to say it’s one of Hu’s best films and essential viewing if you missed it the last time it played the Metrograph. Around this time Chang also made her directorial debut, taking over the production of Once Upon a Time at the behest of Golden Harvest boss Raymond Chow after its director died in a car accident. This was in either 1978 or 1981, sources differ.1 In 1979, the same year as Hu’s two Mountain films, Chang starred in Ann Hui’s debut film, one of the first films of the Hong Kong New Wave, The Secret, which isn’t part of this series and as far as I know exists on video only in a very bad VHS version.
At this time Chang was splitting time regularly between Hong Kong and Taiwan. In 1982, she starred in the first Aces Go Places, what would become the flagship series for the newly formed Cinema City studio, which would come to dominate Hong Kong filmmaking throughout the 1980s. Founded by a trio of comedians (Raymond Wong, Dean Shek and Karl Maka) and eventually incorporating Tsui Hark, Eric Tsang and Nansun Shi, Cinema City was the proving ground for directors like Ringo Lam and Johnnie To, as well as providing a boost to the careers of John Woo and Tsui himself, whose trio of edgy first films had floundered at the box office before he joined up to make a series of madcap comedies for the studio. Tsui even appears in a small role as a theatre director in the first Aces Go Places, and would go on to direct the third installment in the series (Lam helmed the fourth and Shaw Brothers master Lau Kar-leung slummed it with the fifth). Eric Tsang directed the first two films in the series, a slapstick comedy about a bumbling detective (Maka) forced to team up with a suave jewel thief (Sam Hui) to catch an even more dangerous crook. Hui was a major Cantonese rock star, and had starred with his brothers Ricky and Michael in a series of highly successful comedies throughout the 1970s.2 Sylvia Chang plays a tough cop assigned to assist Maka. Not exactly playing the straight man (there is no such thing in a Cinema City movie), she nonetheless has little patience for Maka’s tomfoolery, and with her eye-popping anger she more than holds her own with the outlandish antics of her male co-stars, just as she matches them punch for punch in the stunt-fighting department. Aces Go Places is an extremely silly film, not even the best of its series (that would be the second one, I think, though most seem to prefer Tsui’s episode), and Chang’s character is very poorly served indeed in the final act, but it’s undoubtedly a seminal film in 80s Hong Kong cinema, and it’s a real treat to see Chang’s wild side.
That side is buried very deep in 1983’s That Day, On the Beach, the first feature by both director Edward Yang and cinematographer Christopher Doyle. In 1981, Chang was producing a Taiwanese TV series called Eleven Women and was looking to hire young directors. One of the people she hired was Yang, who had just quit his job as an engineer in Seattle to move home to Taiwan a join the film industry. His work on the series, and as an assistant on a friend’s TV movie (The Winter of 1905, on which Doyle also worked), landed him connections throughout the Taiwanese film industry, the youngest, most ambitious members of which would congregate at his house. The outgrowth of this was the New Taiwanese Cinema, led first by a pair of omnibus films (In Our Time, in which Sylvia Chang stars in the fourth segment, directed by Yi Ching, and The Sandwich Man) and then a pair of features, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Boys from Fengkuei and Yang’s That Day, On the Beach. In That Day, Chang plays a woman who meets up with an old friend she hasn’t seen in 13 years. In catching up, she tells the woman (who had been in love with Chang’s brother until their parents separated them in favor of an arranged marriage) the story of her life so far. Avoiding her own arranged marriage, she ran away from home and married her boyfriend. As he climbed the corporate ranks they led a life of luxury and boredom, until she realizes that he had been cheating on her, and his business partners as well. All this comes to a head one day when he appears to have drowned. Chang spends the whole day on the beach, reflecting on her life. With its complicated structure of time shifts and nested flashbacks, and framing device of a conversation between two older women looking back on their disappointing lives, the film very much looks forward to Chang’s own acclaimed 1986 film Passion, although that film lacks the beauty of Doyle’s images or the precision of Yang’s staging. That Day isn’t quite the masterpiece that Yang’s next several films would be, but as a debut film it’s a remarkable achievement. And Chang, buried as she is under a truly outstanding 1980s perm, gives one of her best performances.
However, Chang did not receive a Golden Horse nomination for That Day, On the Beach. She did win Best Actress in 1981 for My Grandfather, a Taiwanese film by director O Chun-hung, which is the only film playing in the Metrograph’s series that I haven’t seen. She got a Best Actress nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards for Aces Go Places, which is somewhat surprising, but then that organization had a weakness for Cinema City comedies in its early days. She was also nominated there for Tsui Hark’s 1984 film Shanghai Blues, which would be my pick as the single best film in the Metrograph series. Less well-known than its companion, 1986’s Peking Opera Blues, it’s a screwball comedy with Chang, Kenny Bee and Sally Yeh. On the eve of the Japanese attack on Shanghai, Bee and Chang meet under a bridge at night, falling instantly in love. After the war, Bee returns to Shanghai to look for her, but doesn’t know what she looks like. Unwittingly, he moves into the tiny apartment one flight above Chang’s. Yeh plays a pickpocket who attempts to rob Bee, moves in with Chang, and dreams of stardom. It’s old school Hollywood filmmaking—comparisons to Lubitsch or Paul Fejos’s Lonesome are not unwarranted—a bittersweet look at the lunacy of a world turned upside down by decades of war and chaos. Chang’s melancholy and soulful performance is the film’s heart, the core around which Yeh and Bee’s crazier antics swirl. Chang also had an impact on Tsui behind the scenes. In an interview cited by Lisa Morton in her The Cinema of Tsui Hark, he says “Sylvia encouraged me to explore what female psyches could bring to a male persona. She kept telling me that females were richer subjects, more complex than guys and at first I questioned that. By stretching the dimensions of the gender of the characters in that movie (Shanghai Blues), I realized she was right. Her thinking enhanced the whole movie and much of my thinking.” Over the next decades, Tsui would distinguish himself from his peers like John Woo, Ringo Lam, and Johnnie To in his focus on female characters, and it seems fair to say that may have been at least somewhat due to Chang’s influence.
After Shanghai Blues, Chang continued at Cinema City for the next few years, making Aces Go Places sequels and starring in romantic comedies like Clifton Ko’s Chicken and Duck Talk, with Michael Hui, and Seven Years Itch, with Raymond Wong. That film, inspired by the horny husband in Billy Wilder’s Marilyn Monroe film, is pretty dire, Chang is just about the only good thing in a film overwhelmed by Wong’s casual misogyny. It was the second film director Johnnie To made for Cinema City (the first was another Wong vehicle, Happy Ghost III, which co-starred Maggie Cheung), and only the third since his 1980 debut (he spent the intervening years in television). The next year he made his first big hit film, The Eighth Happiness, a wacky Lunar New Year comedy starring Wong and Chow Yun-fat. It was the number one film at the Hong Kong box office that year, a feat which To and Chow repeated the next year, with All About Ah-long. Vastly different from anything To had made up to that point, Ah-long is a kind of Kramer vs. Kramer story with Chow as a slovenly former motorcycle racer who barely makes ends meet while caring for his young son. Chang plays the boy’s mother, who returns home to Hong Kong and wants to retake custody of the child, which means moving him to a life of wealth and ease in America, where she’s a director of commercials. Chang and Chow co-wrote much of the script, but the ending, which I won’t spoil, is pure Johnnie To. About it he said to Stephen Teo, “It was the first film in which I could line everything up in one go; as the film that was really made from my own thoughts. I am grateful to Chow Yun-fat, who gave me many of his own insights, and also to Sylvia Chang, who actually wrote the treatment and was involved in the production. She disagreed with my ending but I told her that I was making the film because of the ending. It may be flawed, but I insisted on it.” Chang, Chow and To made another film together in 1990, the goofy but warm comedy The Fun, the Luck and the Tycoon, but then didn’t work together again for 25 years.
In 1989 and 1990, Chang also starred in two films by key Second Wave Hong Kong directors, filmmakers who came along just a few years after the New Wave had fizzled out. Mabel Cheung’s Eight Taels of Gold is a delightful romantic comedy that pairs her with Sammo Hung, a young man who returns home to the countryside after having struck it (relatively) rich in the big city, while Stanley Kwan’s Full Moon in New York, finds her in the United States, paired with Maggie Cheung and Mainland actress Siqin Gaowa. The women are all immigrants, from Taiwan (Chang), Hong Kong (Cheung) and Shanghai (Siqin), and as their lives intersect in Manhattan they become friends. Cheung is a restauranteur and real estate speculator who breaks up with her longtime girlfriend after falling for a man. Siqin is newly arrived and married to a businessman who doesn’t seem to like her very much. And Chang plays a bohemian aspiring actress (we get to see her Lady Macbeth) who shuffles from couch to couch and learns some unpleasant things about her father. Like most of Kwan’s early films, Full Moon has an entrancing rhythm and is more concerned with mood than plot, a character study where action dissipates in favor of an overwhelming melancholy.
As a look at geographically displaced women, Full Moon looks ahead to the next two dramas Chang would direct, 1992’s Mary from Beijing, in which Gong Li tries to make it as a Mainlander in Hong Kong, and 1995’s Siao Yu, in which René Liu (a pop singer making her film debut) plays a Taiwanese immigrant in New York. Siao Yu began life as a project for Ang Lee, for whom Chang had played a small role in the art house hit Eat Drink Man Woman. When Lee was offered the job directing Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, though, he passed the project on to Chang. Liu plays a young woman who works in a sweatshop while her boyfriend, also in the US illegally, works in a fish market. The two pay Hill Street Blues star Daniel J. Travanti to fake a marriage to Liu, so that she can get citizenship. The movie is basically Green Card, except rather than immigration being a complication for snooty French slobs, it’s a life and death situation for people living at the very margins of capitalism. It’s also blessedly free of romance, Liu and Travanti instead forming a touching and wholly chaste friendship. Chang shows a deft eye for location, capturing an older, dirtier version of the city, its late night streets and tiny, cramped apartments.
Chang’s next film as a director was 1996’s Tonight Nobody Goes Home, a kind of melding of Eat Drink Man Woman with the Lunar New Year tradition of films like The Eighth Happiness or Alls Well Ends Well. But the film after that, 1999’s Tempting Heart, was her first truly great film as a director, beginning a string of exceptional work that with one minor hiccough (the 2008 oddity Run Papa Run) continues to this day. Chang plays Cheryl, a film director who, after a chance sighting of an old lover, has an idea for a screenplay. She invites a young writer (William So) to collaborate and the two of them hash out a story, which we then see play out on-screen, interrupted occasionally by the two writers discussing character, motivation and theme. The script doesn’t change as the two discuss it, this isn’t a Hong Sang-soo-style destruction of narrative reality, rather the way we see the people in the story (the young lovers played by Takashi Kaneshiro and Gigi Leung, whom Johnnie To would reunite in his most underrated rom-com, Turn Left, Turn Right, and the third part of their triangle, Karen Mok) evolves as their creators have new thoughts about them, developed over several days or weeks of working. Eventually, we come to question just how much of the film Cheryl is creating is fictional, and how much based in reality, which in turn raises the question of how autobiographical, and therefore therapeutic, the film is for Chang herself. Shot by Hou Hsaio-hsien’s regular DP Mark Lee Ping-bing, Tempting Heart is Chang’s most beautiful film, rife with the deep reds and blues one can only find in Hong Kong movies.
20, 30, 40, from 2004, takes a similarly temporally expansive view of love, albeit from a wholly different angle. Three women, Angelica Lee, René Liu and Sylvia Chang (in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, respectively), suffer a series of romantic setbacks and reversals before setting themselves aright and moving on with their lives. Lee arrives in Taipei from Malaysia hoping to make it as a singer. She works for a kindly but apparently burnt-out producer (Anthony Wong) who writes songs for her and her roommate, played by Kate Yeung. The two girls dash about the city with big dreams and maybe fall in love. Liu plays a flight attendant who gets sick of her itinerant life and wants to settle down, but has trouble finding a suitable match, considering all her boyfriends are either married or abusive or very far away. Chang plays a florist who discovers her husband has been cheating on her and gets divorced, only to embark on a series of comic misadventures on the dating scene, including a romance with a guy who is way too into exercise and a friendship with The Other Tony Leung. The various characters all intersect at one time or another, though they don’t interact, leaving open the possibility that they are three different versions of the same woman. All three actresses are terrific, and the film has a bouncy rhythm and crisp images, genuinely funny and moving at the same time. Lee gives probably the best performance, as she did in Chang’s 2002 film Princess D, a fascinating mash-up of Millennium Mambo and Weird Science co-starring Daniel Wu that really should have been included in the series.
Lee would reunite with Chang for 2015’s Murmurs of the Heart, a family melodrama about a boy and a girl who are separated when their parents divorce, the girl going to live with the mom in Taipei while the boy stays on the small island off-shore with the dad. Now grown up, the girl (Isabella Leung) is an artist, pregnant and suffering from depression and haunted by memories of her mother (Lee). Her boyfriend is an aspiring boxer with his own set of unresolved issues with his father, while her brother, whom she hasn’t seen or heard from in years, works as a tour guide shuttling between the island and Taiwan. One night he gets caught in a rainstorm and finds himself in a bar, where strange things are afoot. Chang’s oblique approach to the narrative is bewildering at first, but as the relationships and family history become clear, and a dash of magic is thrown in, the film becomes a mesmerizing fable of family love across time, with some of Chang’s most striking imagery and a first-rate performance from Leong, making her return to cinema after a decade in retirement.
2015 was a big year for Chang, with two other projects represented in the Metrograph series. First is Office, directed by Johnnie To and adapted by Chang from her play Design for Living. A musical about three generations of workers at a high-powered company, Chang plays the boss working below Chow Yun-fat’s CEO, while his daughter starts at the firm and carries on a romance with another young worker. But the heart of the film is in middle-management, where Tang Wei, against her better judgement, fudges some numbers to benefit the man she loves, Eason Chan, with disastrous consequences. It’s a musical, with songs co-written by Lo Ta-yu, the Taiwanese singer and songwriter who also did music for All About Ah-long and several other Johnnie To films. But the most striking aspect thing about the film are the open plan sets, which in their bright lines, blues, golds and blacks recall the expansive and haunting Art Deco designs of 1930s Hollywood, Busby Berkeley crossed with Fritz Lang. Chang is magnificent as the film’s villain, a role she rarely got to play, while Chow is every bit her match, in both acting (his best, most subtle, performance in years) and villainy.
Also in 2015, Chang starred in Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart. A story told in three acts (in three different aspect ratios), it follows Zhao Tao from her young adulthood as part of a love triangle in 1999, through her estrangement from her husband and their son in 2014, into the future, to the son’s life as an immigrant in Australia. Chang figures in this third act, where she plays the boy’s English teacher and the two have an affair. As a film about motherhood, and about familial love as it changes a deepens and grows weird with time, Chang’s casting is certainly no mistake: what Jia has made is a kind of Sylvia Chang movie, adopting her tactic of splitting a story across time (Passion, Tempting Heart, 20, 30, 40 (sort of), Murmurs of the Heart) to make a truly unexpected kind of melodrama. And not just unexpected because Jia had a reputation as a maker of austere, minimalist, politically-committed films. With his recent films, Jia has been translating the concerns of his early work (his grand theme being the destruction of land and lives left behind as China has modernized economically over his lifetime) into the traditional genres of Chinese cinema. 2013’s A Touch of Sin translated ripped from the headlines tragedies into the modes of wuxia storytelling, yet completely set in the present and wholly realistic. Mountains May Depart follows a similar path, but with the Changian melodrama and its central concerns with the role of women in the family and society and the relationship between a mother and her children. That Chang herself plays the mother surrogate in the third act’s Oedipal romance is absolutely perfect.
Finally, the Metrograph’s series comes to a close with the New York premiere of her 2017 film Love Education. She plays a woman who, after her mother dies, insists that the woman’s dying wish was to be buried next to her husband. The problem is that the guy has been buried way out in the country for years, under the watchful eye of his first (and possibly only) wife (the marvelous Wu Yanshu). Chang’s attempt to strong-arm the old woman into letting her dig up her father’s bones so they can be moved to the city becomes a kind of nationwide scandal after her daughter (Lang Yueting), who works as a reporter for an Oprah-style talk show, films the fight. The various sides settle in for a siege, as neither Chang nor the old woman can track down the proof of marriage they need to make the case that they should have custody of the body: the files have disappeared, everything has disappeared in the chaos of 20th century China. And so each generation reflects on love and what it all means, neither faction able to compromise. Famed Fifth Generation Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang plays Chang’s husband, who may be having an affair, while Lang’s boyfriend may be helping to raise the son of an old girlfriend, a child that isn’t even his. The talk show, and its culture of public confession contrasts jarringly with the deep reserve of the old woman’s unyielding devotion to the man who abandoned her decades earlier, and Chang’s in-between desperation, her frustration at not having everything her way, is both unlikeable and understandable. Like every Sylvia Chang movie, Love Education is easy to watch, it looks beautiful (shot by Mark Lee Ping-bing) and has plenty of comedy to leaven its darker and sadder moments. But beyond that it’s a deeply thoughtful work, as clever as it is humane.

1. The IMDb and Wikipedia say 1981, while the Hong Kong Movie Database and Frederic Dannen and Barry Long’s Hong Kong Babylon say 1978. My guess is that 1978 is the correct year, but I don’t have a really good argument for why that would be.
2. Michael, who directed the Hui Brothers films, in fact was the first true genius of Hong Kong cinematic comedy, and is more than worthy of a retrospective of his own.
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