VIFF 2021 Wrap Up Discussion Taylor Baker speaks with Thomas Stoneham-Judge of ForReel and Matthew Simpson of Awesome Friday! about the VIFF 2021 experience and a Top 3 films of the Festival round table.
The 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival ran from October 1st to the 11th. To learn more about the festival and see more of what VIFF has to offer, visit https://viff.org/Online/default.asp
It’s hard to describe exactly what Queena Li’s debut feature Bipolar is without sounding like an intern at a movie studio writing script coverage. There are bits of Luis Bunuel’ and Maya Deren’s surrealism, bits of Jim Jarmusch’ and David Lynch’s absurdist take on the everyday man, and Ingmar Bergman’s existentialism. But all those combined never feels contrived or derivative of these great filmmakers. Rather, it is the announcement of a filmmaker coming to her own and making a splash.
Li’s film is an absurdist journey of self-actualization steeped in Buddhist philosophy that this reviewer is not familiar enough with to truly comprehend. But that prevents Li from putting her audience in her firm grasp because ultimately the film’s themes of self are universal enough to emotionally attach to. Film notes have described this as a take on the Orpheus myth. Both are about singer-songwriters who attempt to guide home someone who has descended into hell. In Bipolar’s cases, the singer-songwriter, the Girl, is played by actual Chinese-pop star, Leah Dou, and instead of Eurydice, she is guiding home a mystical colorful lobster who has been placed on display in a restaurant.
The film plays like a road trip movie, bouncing between flashbacks of the Girl’s life and the strange characters that she meets. The film takes tangents into the Girl’s fractured past, exposing the terrain of her mindscape. The people that she meets from Buddhist monk to a wig maker are manifestations of her fractured interiority. All this is told in odd non-sequitur philosophical musings which can sometimes feel too self-conscious for its own good but the style from Queena Li is steady enough to keep hold.
Her vision of the Chinese and Tibetan landscape is shot in beautiful widescreen digital monochrome along with the film’s deliberate pace which allows the viewer to get lost in it and slip into a dreamy state. And when there are the moments of neon colors, it is quite extraordinary. Flourishes like a quick montage from the lobster’s point of view is exhilarating in its style and daring.
The English title Bipolar might be the worst thing about the film. While it certainly makes sense to describe the fractured mindscape of the Girl, the baggage of the word distracts from what the film is really about. The Chinese title 只是一次偶然的旅行 (“Zhishi yici ouran de luxing”) means “Just an Accidental Trip” seems like the more apropos title, even with the awkward direct English translation. The textual purpose of this road trip is just a journey to actual self-actualization. As a performer, Leah Dou is a tantalizing and compassionate screen presence, like a young Maggie Cheung, making any hard to grasp freewheeling meandering moments tolerable.
Li is assured in ambition, vision, and most importantly voice. With Bipolar, Queena Li adds her name, along with Cao Jingling and Bi Gan, to the promising new generation of independent Chinese filmmakers.
Bipolar was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.
Mia Hansen-Løve’s seventh feature length film entitled Bergman Island is in essence a meta fictional island getaway trip to work on new creative projects for a couple. The titular island is called Fårö, Ingmar Bergman’s palatial getaway where he crafted some of his greatest masterpieces, and some of the world’s greatest moving images. The couple Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth), are each artists if not artisans working at their next projects, battling through writer’s block, and more conventionally navigating their relationship whilst doing it. Occasionally when a film is meta, deferential and/or (in this case both) referential to previous work I find myself making comparisons to other previous works of art in an effort to reach toward understanding their contents, themes, and ideas to myself or to hold the idea(s) of them in my head from another angle, at arm’s reach rather than up close, or from afar rather than in the room with me. An alliterative title that keeps doing laps in my head is that of a rebranding of Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona, instead Mia Chris Fårö. Mia Wasikowska joins us in the last third of the film as Chris begins sharing her incomplete screenplay draft with Tony to try and get advice on whether he thinks there’s anything to it. Wasikowska seems to be Chris’s stand in and thus Mia Hansen-Løve’s stand in (If you’re willing to concede that Chris is Hansen-Løve’s stand in to begin with.) Are you losing track of the metaphor? Me too. That’s part of the game with these films within films about films, especially when those films are self aware of the source material.
It’s not clear to a final delineation of comprehension exactly what Hansen-Løve’s point is at the end of the film as Wasikowska’s Amy fades and Chris returns running through a field to hold her daughter. But the spirit of the idea, the ghost of the understanding is there. We spend time throughout the film learning of Bergman’s successes and failings, at one point in a dinner conversation Chris essentially asks, “Do you think he could have been the artist he was and also been a better father?” This is in reference to him having nine children from six mothers before the age of forty, to which her dinner companion scoffs in a jovial laugh and says something to the effect of “Do you think you can direct 24 films not to mention plays before 40 and spend your time changing diapers?”. There’s the ghost of a sacrifice there that Hansen-Løve herself is tackling, through Chris. What is more meaningful? The “work”? Or the family? And perhaps more deeply why can’t the family be the work? These aren’t revolutionary questions or ideations, they are eternal, Bergman himself explored them, but not in the same ways. In that way Hansen-Løve’s film isn’t just an homage using his name, it’s building on the foundation that predated Bergman but accenting itself on the very body of his labor. Revitalizing it in a way, paying deference in another, and more interestingly acknowledging the intimate relationship between an artist and an observer of the art as a relationship itself. Something that Chris herself seeks from Tony during her recounting of her screenplay whilst he receives phone calls, and treats it less deferentially than we’ve seen Chris treating Bergman’s work up to this point. What’s interesting though is it’s not a pointed finger from Hansen-Løve teaching a lesson about the absent minded husband not paying proper attention to his wife. Half a dozen times before this falling action we’ve seen Chris blow off Tony or not take his pieces of work seriously. It’s not that one is right or wrong, so much as acknowledging the intimacy that comes when someone truly connects with a piece, or pieces in a way that maps not only onto their identity but how they express themselves in the world.
All that serious thematic content may make it sound more dour and more stern or observational than it actually is. There’s a scene where Krieps’ Chris walks into the bathroom she and Tony share, the one from Scenes from a Marriage and she simply brushes her teeth. But as she’s brushing them she begins seemingly unprovoked to chortle with laughter, eventually reaching a near hysterical level. It’s not something everyone in the theater got to share, not most, not half, not even an eighth of an at capacity Vancouver Playhouse Theater understood the inside joke of. But those of us(maybe you, dear reader) who’d borne witness to some of the history of that location had a different elatory experience with Chris. The very idea that she was brushing her teeth in the same bathroom where Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson’s Marianne and Johan shot their masterpiece Scenes from a Marriage is simply hilarious. Fårö itself but especially the room Chris and Tony share, is practically a religious site for cinephiliacs, of which Hansen-Løve is clearly one. There’s shared history and through that shared emotions.
Hansen-Løve through Chris inquires as to the religiosity of Bergman himself, she and seemingly Hansen-Løve herself learned on her own trip or through her own study that he believed in ghosts before he passed. This idea of a ghost isn’t overtly dug into, it’s at the corners, the creases of the film, the backgrounds, a figure passing in front of window, or perhaps a Hansen-Løve surrogate named Chris played by Vicky Krieps having a joyful one might say soulful laugh at the very premise of brushing her teeth in the same bathroom Scenes from a Marriage was shot in.
Family ties us all together. Even with a strenuous relationship, family is always going to be a part of your life. Such is the case in Lee Seung-Woo’s Three Sisters. The eponymous three sisters gather on their father’s birthday. All of them carry scars and memories from their upbringing and the different lives they lead now. The only person keeping them from having a “normal” day is their little brother, who always seemed a bit “off” to them. He goes on to unravel their secretive past, which ends up amounting to nothing.
A common theme in Seung-Woo’s film, grand ideas and a longing to be profound, but juvenility and its flair for the pedantic weigh on this film like an anchor, not letting it move anywhere. The plot is the most intriguing part of the film, and that outstayed its welcome within the opening minutes of the film. Moon So-ri, Kim Sun-young, and Jang Yoon-ju do their best with what little they are given, I would love to see them given something far meatier and see how they elevate it. Their work here should be greatly commended, and at the same time condemn Seung-woo for not given these fantastic actors enough to work with.
Even the gorgeous cinematography, combined with the fantastic trio of So-ri, Sun-young, and Yoon-ju, and the melancholic score by Park Ki-heon are not enough to make Three Sisters worth a watch. I wish it was, I was very much looking forward to seeing this and it let me down. I wanted to love this film, I wanted to sing its praises, it seemed so interesting and cool. Unfortunately what I was given was a pedantic, childish film that has big aspirations and snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.
Apartment complexes are places of relatively constant change. There might be a few tenants in any given building who’ve resided there for what seems like forever, but otherwise, tenants tend to come and then leave, all their belongings, pets, dramas, and peculiarities in tow. The Girl and the Spider, a poetic and precisely assembled German language art film, co-written and directed by the brothers Roman and Silvan Zürcher, isabout such moments of flux, and the emotions, dreams, and tensions exposed and discovered in periods of instability.
Lisa (Liliane Amuat) is moving out of one flat and into another, leaving her roommate Mara (Henriette Confurius) behind. A radiantly blue-eyed, cryptically expressive twenty- or thirty-something year-old , Mara is the focal point of The Girl and the Spider, but as the setting alternates between two different apartment buildings, myriad other flat dwellers, cats, dogs, and spiders included, win the Zürcher’s attention. Mara doesn’t help Lisa settle into her new place so much as she idles and observes as handymen, Lisa, Lisa’s mother, and neighbors come in and through Lisa’s new flat, introducing themselves to one another and exchanging glances and remarks that range from benign to hostile and flirtatious. The tone of communication between characters often changes on a dime. For example, one moment, Mara, for no easily discernible reason, is rudely declining to shake the hand of a woman neighbor who stops in to say hello, only to then, shortly thereafter, appear receptive to the woman’s furtively romantic advances. This is to say that the Zürcher’s aren’t operating in the domain of conventional drama or straight-forward storytelling, and they’re all the better for it.
Very much of a piece with The Strange Little Cat (2013), Roman Zürcher’s feature debut, The Girl and the Spider is a film of beguiling ambiguity and delightful idiosyncrasy. Carefully modulated acting is the first mark of the Zürcher’s unique film direction, but what further distinguishes their formal signature is their methodical framing, their lyrical focus on ordinary spaces and objects, and their musical sense of rhythm. At transitional moments in the film, a classical score accompanies montages of the items and household animals strewn about the flats that Lisa is moving in and out of. A yellow box cutter on a bathtub’s side, a blue sponge on hardwood floor, a cigarette sitting on a balcony ledge, a spider crawling up into the corner of room; some, if not most of the things are of minor narrative import in any obvious sense, but the Zurcher’s compositions suggest their worth considering all on their own. The Zürcher’s are formalists of the mundane, and very, very fine ones at that.
The Girl and the Spider Trailer
The Girl and the Spider was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.
What happens when there’s a global epidemic and the film you’d been planning to shoot can’t be shot? For Sean Baker the answer to that question is Red Rocket. A long gestating idea that’s been percolating around his mind since researching for his 2012 film Starlet which he also co-wrote with Chris Bergoch. In Sean’s own words Red Rocket is a story about a narcissistic suitcase pimp(though it sounds like you can’t be a suitcase pimp without the narcism) who’s more than just “kind of a piece of shit”.
Red Rocket starts out with a bruised Mikey Saber passed out in the back of a car headed from California to Texas. We don’t know who he is, why we’re entering the story with him now, or anything about him besides his visibly rough circumstances. Baker, true to his filmmaking core, is sharing a slice of life film with us again. This time it’s the life of an ex-pornstar and his return to Texas City, Texas. But once again Baker’s film is predicated upon characters on the margins of society, eking out an existence where films other his so rarely look.
After walking an unknown distance Mikey knocks on the door of a ramshackle home to request shelter from Lexi, a woman he seems to have a history with. Her mother Lil, played by Brenda Deiss, also lives with Lexi. It seems these two have been through this sort of thing before as they protest and run through the laundry list of reasons why he’s no good and can’t stay. So, naturally he stays, promising to pay for rent just as soon as he gets a job. Which he needs an extension on because he can’t go apply for jobs looking all beat up like he is now.
After surprisingly applying seemingly everywhere all around town Mikey goes to an old connection of his to see if he can deal marijuana for her again like he did when he was a kid, and slowly Mikey goes about building up a clientele and providing a high quality product that rather than take up the meat of the story with, Baker eschews to the margins of his narrative fabric with details visually shown without fanfare like Mikey always lugging around with his backpack which we know is full of bud or discussing the act of dealing itself but in very few scenes do we actually see him dealing. He is selling so much in fact that he’s able to pay for the month’s rent at once instead of weekly, which gives Lexi, Lil, and Mikey reason to celebrate. So naturally they go down to the local donut shop for the biggest coffees they serve and as many donuts as either Lexi or Lil desire. This is also the moment Mikey meets Rayleigh, a 17 year old girl who works the counter of the donut shop on Wednesday’s after school.
Mikey skeezily begins to build a relationship with Rayleigh who urges Mikey to call her Strawberry instead of Rayleigh. “That’s what my friends call me.” Mikey begins grooming this 17 year old girl immediately. Going to great lengths to convince her that he’s a hotshot agent from LA. Which leads to one of the funniest running gags in the film, Mikey tossing his bike in the back of Strawberry’s mother’s truck to drive him “home” which is a large and luxurious house that stands starkly against the ramshackle exterior of where he currently hangs his hat. He feigns walking to the door as she drives away and as soon as she turns the corner he turns around and begins pedaling his bike back to the home he’s sharing with Lexi and Lil. Whom Strawberry doesn’t know even exist.
Trey Edward Schults mainstay collaborator Drew Daniels serves as cinematographer for Red Rocket. His images are as sumptuous and bedecked in a shading of light and shadow as ever. Images that simply reek of excellence. If you were to put some of the night time exterior bike riding or truck sequences alongside the truck sequences from Waves it would be hard to tell which shot or sequence belongs in which film. Baker serves not only as Director but Editor of the film, per usual. He experiments more with comedy and horror conventions than I’ve previously seen in a way that while cartoonish breathes a different sense of movie magic into his film that previous entries haven’t had, at least not the films from him that I’ve seen. Which also makes some of the harder to chew on details just a bit more bearable. There’s a great deal of significant events, reveals, and plot generalities that sharing in detail would remove the quality of the experience from, so for now I’ll leave the details of Red Rocket at that. Red Rocket feels familiar but treads ground rarely explored with great craftsmanship and tonal command. As Sean Baker said when he introduced the film to us, “It is a dramedy so if you feel like laughing, please laugh!”
Another year means another entry in Hong Sang-soo’s ever expanding oeuvre. In Front of Your Face is a sparse feature that, like most of Hong’s films, lulls the viewer into a sense of malaise to the daily trivialities of life, before the revelations change the context of the entire film. This has become quite a feature to many of Hong’s films, and really speaks to his interests in how we as people are able to go through the mundane when there is something earth shattering inside.
For most of the film’s 85-minute run time, In Front of Your Face follows Sangok (Lee Hye-yeong), an actress who returns to Korea from the United States. She spends the first half of the movie with her sickly sister, Jeongkok (Cho Yunhee), who is letting her stay in her apartment. The film moves at a leisurely pace, as a sort of a hang out film. They have breakfast, go on a walk, spill soup on a blouse. The interactions feel so mundane, less patient viewers might start squirming.
This very well might be the secret to Hong’s power as a filmmaker. Subtle tension becomes clearer as the film progresses especially with little flourishes, such as Sangkok’s internal monologue popping up from time to time allowing for little revelations. The grainy digital filmmaking that Hong applies also creates a sense of awkwardness between the two.
The second half of the film revolves around a meeting between Sangok and a filmmaker (played by Hong’s frequent stand-in Kwon Hae-hyo) who was enamored with Sangok’s previous acting work. Here the tone shifts. Instead of a tension of a secret held, there is a romantic tension between every pleasantry between the two. Hong is always at his best when filming two people drinking, slowly letting their guard down.
The worst comparison anyone has ever made about Hong’s movies is that he is like Woody Allen. The comparison is there because Hong often has stand-ins for himself, but while Woody Allen is steeped in his own self centered neuroses, Hong’s films are buoyed by melancholic musings of daily human interaction. They just happen to always be about actresses and directors, the people that he knows best. Even though Hong works at such a prolific pace, there is grace in his films. The title In Front of Your Face is the perfect encapsulation of the thesis of the film. And for viewers, Hong presents it right in front of their face. It is up to the viewer to decide if they want to receive it.
Filmmakers love to make movies about how hard it is to make a movie. From TheDisaster Artist to Living in Oblivion, these movies about movies are often a love letter to the medium that they love despite the hardships that they face. Money Has Four Legs goes beyond just a simple love letter to a medium, by being a potent critique of the Burmese film industry.
Maung Sun directs the film about Wai Bhone, son of a famous film director, looking to shoot a remake of a classic film. The opening scene opens with his interaction with the censorship board demanding numerous changes to his script breaking his artistic vision. Not only that, but his cast members are also irresponsible and late, and the ever-present threat of poverty makes Wai ask if this is all worth it. Everyone is seemingly against him.
The satire of the film is clear-eyed throughout about the Burmese film industry. What bubbles underneath the light comedy of the film hijinks is the presence of the socio-political troubles within Myanmar. Muang Sun does not only point his satirical lens at censorship boards but at the way the state treats the impoverished and the corruption of local banks. It is almost surprising that this film was able to get past the censorship board itself.
Maung Sun proves himself to be a very capable filmmaker with an ability to balance tonal shifts and clever referential flourishes. He knows when he is dealing with serious issues and when to be silly. If there are any drawbacks to the film, it very much feels like a first film(which it is) in which so many ideas are packed in that some do not get the attention it deserves. In particular, Wai’s nagging wife feels especially retrograde.
This film has also become an artifact as the Myanmar that Money Has Four Legs depicts is one in which the country had gone through a liberalization. However, just this February, a successful military coup had taken over the country’s government. In fact, Ma Aeint, a co-writer and producer of the film was arrested in early June by the military junta and is being held as a political prisoner. Money Has Four Legs gives a glimpse at a political climate that would not be shown through news telecasts or Vice documentaries. And for Maung Sun to do so in a biting entertaining way showcases why art and movies can be so important and powerful.
Mothering Sunday is a staggered storyline period piece, that follows Jane Fairchild played by Odessa Young as she variously writes a novel, and experiences the sultry romance of forbidden love by imagining herself as the main character in the story she’s telling. Her lover Paul Sheringham is played by Josh O’Connor, and though he spends little time in our camera’s focus he is undoubtable, always seeming not only of the time but the place. Both lovers are lengthily photographed nude, in each other’s arms, lounging, or walking around. Husson’s camera never elicits an overtly sexual gaze as much as an intimate or personal one.
Young’s Jane is a serving girl in the household of Niven. The head of the house of Niven is played by a tightlipped Colin Firth. Trying to stay cheery in the face of difficulty alongside his wife, played by a restrained Olivia Colman who scarcely utters a word. These two heavies seem to serve more as big name finance anchors, than any tangible value to the story. Collectively showing up for scarcely 10 minutes of total screen time.
Based on the novel of the same name by Graham Swift. Mothering Sunday like many adaptations before it accomplishes little. Young continues to have a unique magnetic quality that we’ve seen on display in Shirley and The Stand. Though that fails to compensate for the brooding slowness of the piece that loses its edge the clearer it gets. At best it’s a delicate omage to a moving piece of romanticism rather than a notable entry into the genre.