1999 International Festival of New Cinema and New Media
The continual blur of Montreal Film festivals does not allow the seasoned filmgoer much chance to breathe, let alone contemplate each individual festival within the city’s cinematic global whole. One is over, you pick up the next week’s Hour, Voir, Mirror, or Ici, and, presto, the next festival is just around the corner. This might sound like a complaint, but believe me it is not. Is there another city that spoils its cinephiles as much as Montreal? This year I am ahead of myself by reporting on The International Festival of New Cinema, New Media before I have had the chance to report on earlier fests The World Film Festival and Fantasia (both forthcoming). But sometimes life gets in the way of linearity, so I will skip the prelude and get on to an impressionistic account of some of this year’s major films.
The New Festival always has a place for one of American cinema’s reigning indie kings, Hal Hartley. This year Hartley’s contribution was The Book of Life, a shot on digital transferred to 35mm film that is part of France’s “Sept Arte” Millenium project (which also includes Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole and Don McKellar’s Last Night). Hartley tackles the end of the millenium angst from a New Testament perspective, placing Christ and the Devil in a modern New York City battleground. The apocalypse is imminent, and Christ is in town with Mary Magdalene (P.J. Harvey) in tow, about to engage in a battle of wits with his arch nemesis the Devil. Only by the end of the teleplay, the Devil and Christ become unlikely allies striving for the same goal. The difference is in their attitude toward the goal. They both oppose the apocalypse, the Devil because it would mean losing souls for eternity to God, and Christ because he no longer feels the need to be a vengeful judge of humanity. So Christ, in suit and tie, assumes control of the Mac laptop that holds earth’s fate in the form of the titular book. His orders, handed down through his Father’s mouthpiece, a law firm entitled “Armageddon, Armageddon, & Josephine (?), are to unlock the 5th of 7 seals in the Book of Life. The fifth being the portal to the apocalypse. In the end, Hartley’s Christ offers a Humanist and a pro-free will position on late 20th century destiny. Whereas the Devil thinks the worse of humanity, Christ holds out hope, and if not hope, at least the specter of self-determination, as opposed to Christianity’s linear determinism.
The film holds out several Hartley traits, such as clever dialogue and music-driven editing, while leaping head first into the new digital medium with an assured if not altogether original style. The opening scenes rely too much on optical effects (step-printing) and canted angles to achieve a cool, Wong Kar-Wai hipness. But luckily, this gives way to a more relaxed hipness achieved by overexposed lighting, saturated colors, close-ups, and music. The latter includes a wonderful moment, wholly unrelated to the narrative but extremely appropriate for the film’s mix of the modern (P.J. Harvey) and the ancient (Mary Magdalene): Magdalene at a record store listening booth singing out loud the lyrics to “To Sir With Love” while non-diegetic House music in a wholly different key offsets her voice. Hartley’s wife (Miho Mikaido) represents Christ’s hope in humanity as a bartender with a heart of gold. Other (least interesting) characters include her cynical, atheist boyfriend, and, of course, the Devil. In the end, hope holds court into the new millenium, as the Devil trades back Miho’s soul for the laptop (The Book of Life). Christ is unable to unlock the laptop and eventually throws it and the key to the apocalypse into the Charles River. The film concludes with Christ’s overly stated voice-over elaborating on the need to let humanity play itself out, with all its wondrous mysteries, hopes, failures, and achievements.
One of the most eagerly anticipated films for this viewer was Flowers of Shanghai from Taiwan’s contemporary master Hou Hsiao-hsien. And I was not in the least disappointed. This is pure Hou Hsiao-hsein. Languid narrative; claustrophobic, yet inviting spaces; proscenium framed long takes; luscious, warm cinematography. The film’s length clocks in at slightly under 120 minutes (approximately 118), and contains only 36 shots, for an extremely slow average shot length (ASL) of 3:16, far slower than the ASL for either The Puppetmaster (1.20) or City of Sadness (.43). The story revolves around the rocky relationships of several Flower girls (prostitutes) and their respective “callers” (Masters) at a Shanghai Flower house. Four scenes take place during a collective dinner party where all the men and women are seen, with the camera slowly swaying from side to side as the men hold court, as if imitating their attempts at “swaying” each other with their tall tales, advice, and joviality. The central figures are Masters Wang, Huo, and Hong, and Flower girls Emerald, Crimson, Jade, Jasmine, Pearl, Treasure, and the House’s benefactor and manager, Auntie. Interestingly, with all the long camera stares, all private matters occur off-frame, during the protracted moment of a scene’s fade to black or, if on-frame, is communicated through hushed whispers. For example, after Crimson’s obvious display of sadness toward her sole benefactor Master Wang, Wang whispers “I have something to discuss with you” and the scene fades to black. We never find out what was discussed.
For the most part the camera remains frontal on the action, with only one scene displaying a slight camera movement inward. And, like most Hou Hsiao-hsien films, the spaces that we revisit give the film a sense of familiarity, although their spatial relation to each other is kept vague. The one exception is a scene where the camera pans to take us sequentially in shot from one room to another adjoining room. In fact, the moment, which occurs during the formal setting free of Emerald to Master Huo and moves us from the signing of a registry to Emerald and Huo seated facing each other, is so striking in its movement that it makes us feel like unwilling voyeurs (a quality common to many of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films). All the relationships are marked by the same tensions: jealousy caused by Flower girls taking on other callers, or Masters seeing other Flower girls; financial matters where the Masters are placed in the position of having to pay the Flower girl’s debts; competition and jealousy among the girls; rivalry between the Auntie and certain top girls. We learn that the Flower girls are bought by Auntie at the age of seven or eight, trained and groomed for a few short years of popularity, and then “set free” for thousands of dollars after their popularity has waned or a rich Master desires them. Set during October 1884, Hsiao-hsien does not offer any overt political commentary, and in fact never once leaves the sensuous confines of the Flower House. Instead he shows us a glimpse into China’s social relations through the slave-like interactions between the Auntie, the Flower girl’s she has bought, owned, and “set free”, and the rich Masters who financially sustain the operation that provides them “sanction” from their family and work.
In After Life Japanese director Kore-Eda Hirokazu continues the thematic concern explored in his (much better) debut feature Maborosi: memory and its effect on the human mind and emotional state. The difference is one of emphasis. In Maborosi, Hirokazu looked at memory from the side of the living, the lingering pain caused by the suicidal death of a young husband on the wife. In After Life, Hirokuza shifts to the opposite side: how the dead cope with the loss of life/living memory. The first two thirds of this nearly two hour film is stylistically close to the conventional talking head documentary. The film’s story is simple and unaffected, yet harbors profound questions. The film opens and closes on a building entrance way whose background is obscured by a flood of blinding light. People being called by numbers walk into the space. The building, a rather old former school or perhaps prison, is home to a purgatory where dead people are told by a group of well meaning “workers” that they have three days to come up with their most meaningful memory that they are then to keep and relive for eternity (now that question in itself may take an eternity to answer!). Most of the opening scenes are the interview exchanges between the recently dead and their interviewers. Hirokazu does nothing fancy here, just talking head images with the odd crosscut to the interviewer seated at the opposite side of the desk. Only in the final 40 minutes does the film come close to the emotional power and tone of Maborosi. In these final 40 minutes the workers reveal themselves to be, in effect, filmmakers gathering detail to inscribe and authenticate the mise-en-scene of the memory they must recreate. Like a grateful audience, the workers smile when the dead tell them that the set is “so real” to their memory.
We discover the workers themselves are people who were unable to select a memory. Only when that moment arrives can they move on and be replaced by another “undecided.” The workers appear to the newly deceased and us at the age at which they died (like vampires). This causes some generational surprises. Like the 71 year-old man Watanabe, who is having trouble selecting his permanent memory, and is surprised when his young memory guide says “that’s the way it was for our generation.” His young guide, Mochizuki, we discover, was actually born a year or two after Watanabe, and died at the age of 22 during the Second World War. Hence he is of the same generation as Watanabe, even though he looks young enough to be his grandson. Their lives become further entangled when we learn that when the guide Moichizuki died he was engaged to Watanabe’s future wife. The honesty of the situation enables each man to select their memory: the same frozen image of the respective men seated at the same park bench with the same woman (the woman also shares this same physical space for her memory!). Unfortunately, Mochizuki’s “promotion” sends the 18 year old assistant who has grown to love him, Shiori, into a depression. Though the film raises profound questions about memory, identity, and eschatology, its playfulness and director Hirokazu’s intentional strategy of stripping the subject of any magic or mysticism actually works against the theme. Where Maborosi, one could argue, treated the similar subject too seriously, After Life errs in the opposite direction.
Sicilia! by husband-wife team Danièle Huillet and Jean Marie Straub is an excellent example of a good political film where, as Engels once said, the politics do not stick out like a spring from a sofa. How is this done? Well you can start by taking a novel by Elio Vittorini, Conversazione in Sicilia, which was banned in Mussolini’s Italy for its pro-socialist underbelly and unglamorous depiction of Sicily’s stagnant social and economic state. The film is appropriately shot in gorgeous black & white reminiscent of the great G.R. Aldo’s cinematography for Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema, that landmark of politically engaged neo-realism. Like other classic Italian political narratives, most notably The Spider’s Stratagem and Il Mafioso, the central narrative event is a thirty-something man’s (Silvestro) return trip to visit his homeland (Sicily) after being abroad (New York) for some time (fifteen years). The political punch comes primarily from the theatrically spoken dialogue (coupled with the narrator’s infrequent voice-overs) as Silvestro talks to people in the (mainly) static stages it takes him to arrive home. It begins with him facing away from the camera looking out at the sea and the tip of Sicily. After several silent moments, which initiates another of the film’s central metaphorical tropes – static dialogue for peopled shots vs. moving unpeopled landscape shots – he talks to a young, unskilled laborer, perhaps fisherman, standing off-frame. Like all his dialogue exchanges with strangers, there is an air of aggressively and forthrightness that sets it slightly apart from real life discourse. The talk is never directly political, but always engaged in aspects of social life, like the lack of difference between past and present, scarcity of products, etc., that implies Sicily’s moribund social and economic status.
Visconti faced this reality when making La Terra Trema, based on Giovanni Verga’s novel from 1881 The House by the Medlar Tree. The film was partly sponsored by the Italian Communist Party and was originally meant to be part of a huge neo-realist trilogy on the plight of fishermen, miners, and peasants. Conceived partly as propaganda for the election campaign, it was to tell a revolutionary political coming of age story. But Visconti soon realized the impossibility of transplanting the Northern political zeal to the South, when he saw that the people of the small fishing community of Aci Trezza were not ready for such revolutionary mobilization. This was driven home by the fact that Visconti was still able to remain faithful to the settings and events of a novel written some sixty years previous, a striking indication of the South’s social and economic stagnation.
This is where the noted static people/moving landscape dialectic comes in. Like earlier Huillet & Straub films, film form is political. Here the notion is that as time moves on, semiotically signified by the left to right, back and forth pans of Sicily, people and the social situation remains the same (signified through the static shots), even though signs of industry can be seen in some shots, but, tellingly, far, far in the distant background. His exchange with his mother seated at her old styled kitchen table is of staggering political and social grace. Questions about his past, his childhood, his father, reveal a negative side of Southern patriarchy (the father left the mother for another woman, physically abused her, and is continually called a coward by the mother). Yet the mother speaks highly of her son’s grandfather -a great man, a great socialist, and also a frequent follower of the St. Joseph’s procession. When the son tries to show her the political conflict of the grandfather’s allegiance to religion she replies, “don’t be ignorant, not all socialists are the same. Your grandfather was a great man, a socialist, and he attended the processions.” This moment not only demonstrates the mother’s staunch belief in following one’s own values rather than ideological dogma, but also reflects the unique and sometimes contradictory nature of Italian leftist politics.
The film’s dialogue is terse and pointed. We often hear words and discourse spoken at a level we would not expect from the class depicted (sort of like the peasants quoting political theory in Monty Python and the Holy Grail!). This irony is pointed out when a train compartment discussion sees one peasant go on and on about social affairs in a manner that has another rider frequently asking him if he is not a professor! After the noted longish sequence with his mother, the film ends with Sylvestro outside in the town square talking to a man who sharpens tools with a makeshift antiquated bicycle pulley system. But the scene’s understated (and literal) political edge comes when he tells us that he doesn’t sharpen knives or scissors, but swords, because no one in Sicily has knives or scissors anymore, just like an earlier person told us that there are no more oranges because other countries don’t want them anymore. Wow!
Being a perennial student and scholar of all things comic I had to see the documentary by Igor Vamos, Le Pentomane. Surprisingly, it turned out to be a standard documentary approach to a highly unusual subject: turn of the century musical oddball, Joseph Pujol, he of the famous musical anus. Yes, a man who performed seriously and with pretension, at the Moulin Rouge, to the enjoyment of late 19th century Paris. Since there only exists brief film footage of Pujol, with the sound disk lost, director Vamos goes to great lengths to set the social milieu, which is extremely important for his attempt at recuperating Pujol from the “bowels” of lost cultural history. As part of the historical immersion, Pujol fills the frame with oodles of contemporary silent film. Many of which are the classics: Melies, Lumiere, Linder, Pathe, Feuillade, Hepworth, etc. Vamos places Pujol as an important part of the Paris Belle Epoque zeitgeist, and most specifically the modernist art movement with figures such as Erik Satie, Alfred Jarry, intellectually with Freud (who was known to frequent his shows), and politically with the anarchists (“an anarchist of the anus”). Luckily, Vamos has six interviewees who are quite the performers themselves and bear the lion’s brunt of convincing the audience of Pentomane’s cultural importance. They include a musicologist, male and female cultural critics, an art historian, a collector, and Pujol’s great grandson. The two cultural critics and art historian provide most of the late twentieth century academic context. The female critic, for example, relating him to earlier female vagina “farters” and how Pujol’s co-opting of their art was just a reflection of how female empowerment was suppressed in general. She provides a healthy feminist cynicism. Like, for example, the way she replies to the Pujol collector’s description of a poster showing Pentomane on stage and a lady laughing herself silly. The male collector tells us that there were nurses at some shows because women often fainted from laughter. Well the female critic says that women fainted all the time, but due mainly to the suffocatingly tight corsets they wore! The musicologist seems the most eccentric or performative of them, while the grandson, a poor grunge-type living out of a trailer, brings a humbling presence to the proceedings. The documentary was extremely entertaining, though far from conclusive on the question of Pentomane’s cultural importance. It did make me think, however, that he may have had some influence on early silent comedians who used scatological humor in their work: Chaplin, Linder, Sennett.
One of the festival’s unquestioned highlights was Abbas Kiarostami’s Le Vent nous emportera, an amazing film, and perhaps the finest of his career thus far. In many respects it is consistent with his previous works in terms of location (village), sensibility (humanist) and pacing (leisurely), and the style (long takes, abundance of dialogue, gorgeous landscape imagery, quotidian characters). But there is also something more, something different at play here. It can be best stated as a move away from realist-socialist sensibility to a more mysterious, metaphysical realm. Even though the terrain appears consistent with other Kiarostami films, the film leaves nearly ever question it raises unanswered. The film begins with an extended sequence of
typically a car in extreme long shot making its way along a series of winding dirt roads. The voices of the three men inside the car (one maybe be Kiarostami’s himself) are heard in what ostensibly is voice-over arguing about directions, and commenting on the beautiful trees scattered about the tundra-like landscape. The car breaks down, conveniently not too far from where a young boy was slated to meet them. The boy takes one of the men up along a treacherous short cut to the room where they will be staying, and then brings him outside the home of a sick lady. It appears that these three men, two of whom we never actually see, have come to this village for a specific reason, but the reason is never made clear. The sense we get is that they are there to record the death of an elderly lady. The boy, whose intelligence endears him to the central protagonist, an “engineer”, serves as his guide to the village’s nooks and crannies.
Nothing else of any consequent happens in the film. Instead actions repeat and common spaces are revisited. Like Hou Hsiao-hsien, the camera lovingly returns to a few central locations for accumulative emotion and meaning. Dialogue encircles the spectator as the central character uses this meandering space/time to ferret out a mid-life, identity search or existential crisis. On at least three or four occasions he stops moving about and remains fixed in contemplative stare. And it is moments such as these, along with interjections of quirky characters, like a motorcycle travelling doctor who bears a passing resemblance to the postman in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, or the girl who lives in isolation inside a dark cave (shades of Plato?), that give the film its mystical/metaphysical mood. The sound also aids here, as it does it Majid Majidi’s Color of God. In the latter parts of the film we begin to hear subtle, non-natural sounds that clearly do not emanate from the surrounding area. As a study in contrast, the engineer’s colleagues are bored of the village and never leave their room, while he never stays inside it, and loves the measured life style of the village citizens. The visitors are city men, from Tehran, and therefore strangers to this village island. And one can say that the film, or the character, romanticize village life. It serves as a break or respite for him, although from what we never know. The film is also very funny in parts (like most Iranian films, comedy is never very far). Like the running gag of his having to take off into his car and up a nearby hill whenever his cell phone rings so he can get clear reception.
And I should just note what is one of the most consistent iconographic elements in Iranian cinema: the car. The omnipotent presence of the car is staggering. You can call it the Iranian answer to the train of the Anglo-Saxon cinema. Both seem to bear mythical connection to its cinema. The train as a technological and historical phenomena literally running alongside film history. But one could write a remarkable thesis on the role and function of the automobile in Iranian cinema, not only contrasting it to the train but noting how it serves as a link between the social and the aesthetic. Here it serves many of its iconographic functions: leading us physically and usually in winding fashion, into and out of the film/dream world. It is used by central characters to communicate, to transport the sick, to pick up fellow travelers along the road, and as a place to socialize.
In a more formal manner the film is highly reflective, a trait common to much Iranian cinema. The film spends considerable effort layering itself with the thought of looking. The three men begin the film “looking” for landmarks to help guide them to their destination. They arrive there anyway, yet continue to look (at least the central character). But for what, we do not know. He seems, at times, to be an ethnographer. Like in the scene where he sits at a café sipping tea and listening to the waitress/owner argue with an older male customer about male/female social roles, work, and female servitude. He twice prepares to take of photo of the woman, but is curtly told, “no photos.” In the end, after his impatient colleagues have left, the mysterious old lady finally dies. This is told through another visitation to the space of the old lady’s home (as always, from the same high angle subjective point of view). For the first time it is not daytime, but rather early morning, with a cool blue as the dominant hue. Inside the house through a window we see a yellow light burning, and hear crying voices. In the next scene he is inside his car about to leave, when he catches the private moment of the funeral procession, with woman dressed in black morning the death of a village elder. He immediately takes his camera out, fitted with a telephoto lens, and begins snapping. This feels like such an intrusive voyeuristic moment that it paints the character in a clearer (and arguably less likeable) light: filmmaker/ethnographer or filmmaker as ethnographer, and stranger in a strange land.
The film’s most reflexive moment is by far the scene of the central protagonist shaving in the courtyard outside his room. We see the portable mirror that he is looking into, followed by a cut to the camera positioned where the mirror would be. He continues to shave looking into the mirror/camera, while speaking to the housewoman behind him, as if seeing her through the “mirror.” It is pure cinema-as/is-illusion. We know there is no mirror there because of the camera’s “impossible” position of view. Yet he behaves as if there is one there. Other reflective gestures are present in the form of frames within frames (car windows, house windows, cave openings, the dark cave itself).
By the film’s end we gain no insight into the characters identity or why they did what they did. Why did these men stop in this village? What were all his important phone calls about? Who was this old lady that seemed to be staving off death? And why were they send on an errand to record her death? Why does the protagonist flip the turtle on its back (which manages to right itself)? Why do we never see his colleagues, or the men digging the hole? And then see the hitchhiker when we clearly have been conditioned not to expect seeing incidental characters? What do all the images and references to nature mean? We never get the answers. In this way the film is playful and coy, but serenely intelligent. But we do experience metaphorical acts of looking, which, after all, represents one of the central functions of cinema.
Claire Denis’ hymn to the French Legionnaire Beau Travail, which won the festival’s top prize, walks a very precarious tightrope between high art and kitsch camp. And maybe, just maybe, it manages to be both. In it Denis revisits her favorite cinematic landscape, Africa. There is not much of a narrative to speak of here. The film begins with the voice-over of Galoup, played by the diminutive Leos Carax regular Denis Lavant, a sergeant in the Legion. As the film begins he is in Marseilles, then the film flashes back to the events that led to his current state. The film’s major dynamics play out between Galoup, his immediate superior (Michel Subor), whom he speaks of with the utmost respect and admiration, and a group of young, virile, muscular soldiers. Before fully boiling over into homoeroticism, the film first bubbles with scenes of the men training, exercising, swimming, washing, cleaning, and doing daily routines. All under the watchful eyes of Galoup and his Captain Without any reason, Galoup begins to imagine trouble in the shape of a new soldier, the young, unassuming Sentain (Grégoire Colin). In heartfelt voice-overs he tells us how shifty and untrustworthy Sentain is. But all we see is a hardworking soldier who takes time out to save a fellow soldier from drowning after a felled helicopter smashes into the water. A brief night scene on the beach hints at the source of the problem. The Captain, cigarette in hand, meets Sentain alone on the beach. He begins to ask about his past, his parents, and discovers he is an orphaned child who was found stranded on a staircase as an unwanted baby. “Nice find” the Captain slyly responds, and walks away. The setting and mise-en-scene suggests a gay pickup scenario. Could it be that Galoup is the Captain’s lover and is now jealous of the new kid on the block? This would partially explain his irrational behavior and the aggressive confrontations between them. The most bizarre such moment is the Sergio Leonesque beach showdown where they stalk each other like sumo wrestlers beginning in a large arc and encircling inwards until they come face to face. Galoup sets Sentain up for disciplinary action, and sends him away into the wide open desert with a faulty compass. Sentain ends up near dead on a bleached, sea salted desert. The Captain finds out about Gapoul’s sabotaging of Sentain, which leads to Gapoul being court-martialed and discharged. Which brings the narrative full circle to Marseilles. (Is this a way for the captain to get closer to Sentain?).
He ritualistically makes his bed, takes a gun, and lies down with it on his side. A tattoo on his chest reads something to the effect, “Stand for a good cause and die.” So is this what it looks like, a suicide? The bedroom scene fades to black and is followed by a final scene which may be a fantasy or death substitute scene, a la Scorsese. The location is an empty discotheque dance floor, with a gleaming dark floor, huge mirrors, and gaudy lighting. Gapoul dances alone, alternating from frantic gestures to mannered movements. A ultimate moment of male narcissism? Are we to laugh or cry? Has he died and gone up to a private hell for closeted gay men? Structurally, the narrative has caught up to the opening and forged ahead. Whether to Gapoul’s fantasy death image or to a pathetic fate as a lone disco dweller is open ended.
The repressed homosexuality expressed through aggression and violence recalls another similar dynamic in Nagasa Oshima’s wartime homo-erotic classic Merry Christmas Mr.Lawrence, with Ryuichi Sakamoto as the Galoup character and David Bowie the Sentain character. Likewise, the attention to dreary repetition and daily duties, the sergeant’s voice-over, and the homoeroticism recalls Sokurov’s existential navy epic Confessions (which played at this festival last year). The film is also blessed with some staggering landscape imagery, but this is not exactly a surprise given the natural splendor. Much of the film’s poeticism occurs in the beginning, as the camera follows their rigorous training or tracks along a clothesline full of their olive green uniform pants. But as the sexual tensions grow the importance of this natural landscape diminishes.
Festival regular Jim Jarmusch was represented by his latest homage to things Japanese, Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai. Jarmusch casts Forest Whitaker in the title role of a medieval Japanese samurai trapped within the body of late 20th century rap-listening hired killer. The film continues the thematic concern of his previous fiction feature (the far better) Dead Man: cultural extinction. Whereas in the latter film Jarmusch paid tribute to Native American culture tradition, the titular Ghost Dog represents the last hired killer to live and die by the code of the bushido spirit. Jarmusch hits the theme home in an incidental scene where Ghost Dog stops his car along the highway to confront two hunters stopped on the side of the road with their day’s catch, a dead brown bear. When the hunters turn aggressive at the pronouncement of the brown bear’s status as endangered species, Ghost Dog shoots them dead. The film’s highpoint is seeing Jarmusch visit Scorsese territory and paint the Mafia hoods with wide strokes of Italian kitsch. Jarmusch almost does Scorsese one better with his excellent group of character actors in wise guy roles (John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Victor Argo, Gene Ruffini), especially Henry Silva as the gang’s cartoon-obsessed Don Vargo (Jarmusch also emulates Scorsese’s thematic use of music). The film is entertaining enough, though it falls short in developing the theme beyond what is stated in the film’s many authentic Zen-Bushido explanatory intertitles.
Also on the disappointing front was Ann Hui’s Ordinary Heroes, a valiant effort to mix agit-prop style social commentary, real life events and characters and high octane melodrama. Like Beau Travail, Hui uses a non-linear narrative structure that begins in the present (1997 Hong Kong), flashes back (late 1970’s Hong Kong) and then moves forward temporally to this initial point and beyond. The film reflects the political conscious of Hong Kong, by charting the move from political indifference in the 1970’s to social and political awakening in the 1980’s. With the emphasis in Hong Kong cinema from the 1970’s onward on popular, entertainment cinema, Ordinary Heroes does succeed in revealing a rarely seen side of Hong Kong: the poor, the derelicts, the homeless, and the political anarchists and social workers fighting on the side of these underprivileged. Granted some of the martial art/historical epics of the 1980’s (Tsui Hark) did often harbor veiled East-West, Hong Kong-China political subtexts, but Ordinary Heroes deals directly with actual historical and social events that have troubled Hong Kong-China relations. So we are treated to (and must be familiar with) the following events: the “Boat Families and Boat Brides”, the “No-Card Mothers”, the “Lau San Ching Incident”, and the “June Fourth Incident”.
Like the events, the characters are also based on real life people. For example, the Brechtian style street performances interspersed throughout the film are staged by performance artist Augustine Mok and based on his real life friend and political activist Ng Chung. The politically committed, guitar playing Marxist-Catholic priest Ah Kam, is based on real life Italian priest Fr. Franco Mella, who staged an annual hunger strike outside the China News Agency to protest the arrest of Hong Kong resident Lau San Ching after his visit to a well-known dissident in Guangdong. Hence the film is all text, no subtext. Which is partly the hurdle the film fails in surpassing: trying to mix political, historical reality with the conventions of popular entertainment. As Hui explains, “After the events of June 4th, 1989, and in the wake of the 1997 handover, I feel a great necessity to express my feelings about Hong Kong and its people….I could not find a suitable story until I read one day in the papers an article about a young bum who was killed in a drunken brawl under one of the flyovers in the city. According to his brother, he was an intellectual and a dissident, and had gone to seed because of “disillusionment with China”. I set about interviewing a lot of people who knew him. Most of these people were of course, activists themselves but they were not exactly like their counterparts in the West. They were mostly just practical do-gooders who were either social workers, journalists, priests or teachers with a handful of “Trotskyites” and “Anarchists” thrown in. But many of them impressed me deeply because, just as they were nowhere near the political mainstream, they were also a minority in the money-grapping and materialist society of Hong Kong.” And, as noted earlier, the film clearly does succeed in demonstrating this “other side” of Hong Kong. But Hui herself was aware of the problem of translating this to film: “Herein lies my difficulty-how to go from all these facts back to the original intention of depicting a feeling, an aura, which for me is uniquely Hong Kong?” The film obviously holds a special meaning for director Ann Hui, although, as the end result reveals, good intentions do not necessarily make great films.
One thing we can always be thankful to the festival for is its constant programming of Russia’s irreverent master stylist, Alexandr Sokurov. Where else last year can we have seen his five hour made for television existential marine epic Confessions? Sokurov is back with a film several hours shorter but no less baffling, his opaque minimalist take on the Hitler-Eva Braun story, Moloch. Some would argue, and I would partly agree, that Sokurov’s sensibility is less suited to political historical material, and that he is better off dealing with the spiritual-humanist-existential matters of Confessions and (the sublime) Mother and Son. There is no doubt that there are fascinating moments in Moloch, but they remain mostly moments that supercede the historical-political (for example, the enchanting opening shots of Eva Braun prancing about on the castle veranda overlooking the mist filled landscape). It is hard to get a handle on what Sokurov is trying to say or add to the Hitler mythology. Moloch refers to a God found in several ancient cultures (Greek, Israeli, Cathari) who was associated with the sacrifice of children. The specific reference that best fits the Nazi mythology invoked by Sokurov is the Cathars, an ascetic sect of Gnostic heretics that lived in 10th -14th century Europe who believed that all matter was created by an evil deity opposed to God. Moloch is such an evil deity, the Devil’s henchman against God. However, Sokurov does not explicitly depict this or any other noted aspect of the Nazi quest for Sublime Evil (for example, their search for the Holy Grail). Instead he invokes a mood of hellish mysticism with monochromatic, grainy and sometimes luminous cinematography, timeless sets and locations (a Berchtesgaden castle continually bathed in mist, art deco architecture, compositions that allude to 17th Dutch painting) and malicious dialogue (Hitler’s scatological obsessions). The depiction of Nazi figures as sociopaths and the Nazi agenda as based on utterly insane beliefs is not exactly new. Nor the implication that Hitler was just a demented puppet leader with no insight into the full scope of the Nazi plan. Sokurov does, however, give these bits of Nazi hieroglyphics a new, convincingly oppressive vision.
Even when inside the castle the image is wrapped in a sense of mystery. In some cases the cause is realist, like the several scenes inside Hitler’s steam-filled bathroom. While in other moments it gives turn to an eerie, otherworldly feel. As in Mother and Son, Sokurov is influenced by the Romantic painting of Germany’s Caspar David Friedrich. Only this time the visual romanticism has a double-edge. While on the one hand it fits accordingly into the self-deluded Nazi mythology of sublime evil and the master race (aesthetic “purity”), but it also exposes the intellectual weight behind it as pure hokum. All the central characters Hitler, Eva Braun, Josef Goebbels and Martin Boorman act or do foolish things. Every time they open their mouths to dispel words of wisdom they reveal the lunacy and irrationalism of their ideals. For example, Hitler says that Finnish people are all stupid because of the long periods of darkness they must endure and the Northern Light, while Czech people have downturned moustaches because of their lineage with the Mongolians! And Goebbels puts the final nail in the coffin when he says that only men have the capacity for rational thought. In short, Sokurov lets the Nazi’s shoot themselves in their own proverbial feet. In these and other moments a real irony is established between lush visuals and the characterisation.
Not only to they all act foolish, they also look unhealthy and move awkwardly. Even the narcissistic Eva, preening about nude in her room, staring at herself in the mirror, dancing on the veranda, or doing gymnastics in front of a full-length mirror, comes across as being far less graceful than she imagines herself to be. Dancing seems to be a motif to represent their ungainliness. In one hilarious scene Hitler and Goebbels enthusiastically dance a jig step in front of a movie screen as they get carried away by their own Nazi propaganda documentaries. During a field trip in the surrounding landscape the Nazi leaders take to spontaneous dancing. Though the film is not meant to elicit belly laughs, there is much that is ludicrous and funny about Sokurov’s depiction of Hitler and his henchmen. None more so than the shot during the above field trip where Hitler retreats behind some bushes to defecate and then exits nonchalantly cleaning his hands with sand (scatological preoccupation is a constant metaphor for Nazi decadence). Where else can you see a depiction of Hitler as a mad, scatological, impotent, hypochondriac, child-man!
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Moloch is its ahistoricism and temporal displacement. For a film set during World War 2 there are anachronistic touches and temporal slips that Sokurov achieves in subtle manner. The castle, though based on real geography, has an air of “once-upon-a-timeness.” It takes place in 1942 yet feels timeless. For example where does the gold-lined, art deco style elevator come from? Or the modernist, white, spherical wall lights? After all, weren’t the Nazi’s deadly opposed to all forms of modern “decadent” art? The most striking anachronistic gesture is the composition that comes immediately after the first dinner scene. Hitler rises and begins to walk around the room, the others following (Eva Braun, Goebbels, Boorman, etc.). Once Hitler stops, the crowd gathers around their leader in a compositional manner that recalls the mise-en-scene of a Dutch 17th painting. With its formal intertextuality the scene strikes an ironic chord by implying that the notion of Hitler as their leader is itself a staged ideological gesture (with Hitler used by the Nazi hierarchy to fulfill Germany’s desire for a powerful patriarch). For example, when Eva mentions Auschwitz, Hitler reacts as if he has never heard of the word before. When Hitler asks what it means, Boorman tells him not to worry, that it doesn’t exist, and concludes his point by rhetorically asking, “what do you expect from a woman?”
Though there are some similarities, Moloch never quite raises the viewer to the aesthetic emotional high of Mother and Son. For example, exterior landscape shots are often shot in the same oblique, distorted angle. However, the pacing is less consistent. Some scenes linger in long take, while others are cut at a quicker rate. For the first time in a Sokurov film there are moments where there seem to be cuts made for the sake of emotion rather than narrative. And for the first time in any Sokurov film that I can remember, there are sequences that are cut in (aghast) a fairly classical style! As a point of contrast, the average shot length for Mother and Son was 72 seconds, while it is (approximately) 23 seconds for Moloch (mind you an ASL of 23 seconds is still slow by most standards). And the film is less than successful when trying to level direct criticism (like the scene between Hitler and a priest where he unleashes an angry tirade against the church). But even a Sokurov (slight) misfire is as fascinating and unique a cinema experience as you are likely to have at a festival (forget about ever seeing a Sokurov film playing at your local multiplex). Sokurov also answers those critics who complain that the festival has failed its mandate of promoting new (re: young) directors. “New” does not have to refer to young or first-time directors (though it most certainly can and usually does), but to directors who do challenging and innovative work. Which is why people like Sokurov and Godard continue to be screened at “new” festivals.
(Atom Egoyan’s Felicia’s Journey also played at this year’s FCMM. Stay tuned to Offscreen for in-depth coverage including an interview with Atom Egoyan.)