Coping Strategies: The 26th Vancouver International Film Festival - Part One

Josh Timmermann
The Man from London (dir. Béla Tarr)

Most of the films we saw, in one way or another, are about coping -- with guilt, with war, with torture, with disease, with unrequited love, with social perception, with political change, with death, with history.

Coping Strategies: The 26th Vancouver International Film Festival - Part Two >

The first screening my wife, Teresa, and I attended at the 26th Vancouver International Film Festival was a packed 11:00 AM showing of The Man from London, Béla Tarr's first feature since 2000's Werckmeister Harmonies. As an enormous Tarr fan (his seven and a half-hour Sátántangó is one of the ten or so greatest films I've ever seen), I was naturally excited to see the Hungarian master's adaptation of Georges Simenon's French-language novel, despite the film's mixed reception at Cannes earlier this year. Thankfully, I wasn't disappointed, and afterwards, I remarked that I doubted I'd see a better film at the fest.

My prediction was wrong. The Man from London turned out to be only the second-best film we saw in Vancouver, yet it's a masterpiece, at any rate. Ostensibly, Tarr's latest is the most narrative-driven and relatively straightforward among the four films of his I've seen (Damnation plus the two previously mentioned) -- which is to say, his most accessible. But the noirish plot is effectively a MacGuffin, a method by which Tarr finds new ways of approaching his usual themes: guilt, cultural corruption, and most specifically, outsiders invading an insular community and profoundly disrupting its rhythms and routines.

The Man from London

Stylistically, this is pure Tarr, as well. The opening shot of a huge passenger ferry, scanned and studied slowly from almost every imaginable angle, is as ominously beautiful as anything in his singular oeuvre. In the film, a dockworker comes across some 60,000 pounds after witnessing a murder. However, more than the shady origins of the cash-filled briefcase or the effort to recover the money, Tarr is concerned with his dour protagonist's mounting guilt, which, in retrospect, was a harbinger of things to come at the fest.

Most of the films we saw, in one way or another, are about coping -- with guilt, with war, with torture, with disease, with unrequited love, with social perception, with political change, with death, with history. We, the audience, mostly just had to cope with the rain, which, true to the Pacific Northwestern cliché, persisted throughout most of our stay in Vancouver.

Even Sweet and Sour, a delightful animated short about a dog discovering the wonders of Chinatown, is about coping with sudden ambivalence. After relishing the neighborhood's tasty cuisine and exciting genre movies, our canine hero notices dozens of fliers for missing dogs, and recalls the stereotype that's plagued Chinese restaurants since, seemingly, time immemorial.

Another short, The Secret in the Wind, focuses on a little girl who refuses to mourn her father's death with conventional displays of respect. While her mother and older brother light incense near a makeshift shrine in their living room, the girl sets off firecrackers in the kitchen. It's made clear in the film's lovely final sequence that she doesn't miss her dad any less than the other members of her family do, but she wants to honor his memory in ways that make sense to her.

Useless (dir. Jia Zhang-ke)

The third short, by Chinese festival circuit superstar Jia Zhang-ke, preceded his documentary feature, Useless. Titled Our 10 Years, the film follows a man and woman's mostly silent meetings aboard a train between 1997 and the present year. Extremely effective in conveying a sense of uneasy progress and subsequent anxiety with the most minimal of ingredients, this might be Jia's condensed sequel to the epic Platform, which focused intimately on a handful of characters as a means to chart the People's Republic's transitional period from the late '70s to the late '80s.

Useless, meanwhile, brings Jia's filmography full circle. Where his previous two films, The World and Still Life, saw his verite-style naturalism evolve into a more stylized aesthetic, with eye-popping DV lensing and quirky, surrealistic touches (the anime snippets in The World, the UFO in Still Life), his latest is the most low-key and unassuming thing he's made to date. Some of his signature moves remain (cheesy, romantic C-Pop soundtracking scenes of working class quotidianness, long tracking shots of motorbike rides down rural roads), but Jia's up to something different here.

Simply put, this is a movie about clothes, from the mass-produced to the haute couture to the homemade. But in mapping the path from a Ghangzhou clothing factor to Paris's Fashion Week (the first time Jia has shot outside China) back to his home province of Shanxi, Jia implicitly speaks volumes about the very complicated subject of authenticity in art, contrasting personal creation against utilitarian functionality, and illuminates consumerism in 21st Century China. As he films a Chinese fashion designer discussing the motivations behind her work, it's also clear that, as an often controversial Chinese artist, Jia is as concerned as ever (see, for starters: Platform's theatre troop switching gradually from patriotic pieces to performing poppy love songs) with the Mainland's emergence from Maoist industrialization into a culture capable of producing vital, expressive works of art.

In 2007, Jia Zhang-ke is something of a household name among arthouse-inclined film buffs, but at the beginning of the new millennium, he was a major festival discovery, championed by Western reviewers (Platform finished as 2000's best undistributed film in the Village Voice film critics poll, and placed third the following year). The most revelatory discoveries at this year's VIFF were, for me, a pair of stunners from Malaysia, strong evidence that Kuala Lumpur may soon join Taipei, Bangkok, and Seoul as hot spots for East Asian cinema.

The Elephant and the Sea

The first was The Elephant and the Sea, by Woo Ming-Jin. Sadly, the film's screening was the emptiest we attended at a fest marked mostly by high turnouts, but those of who did show up were well rewarded. Woo's film possesses the remarkable immediacy of early Jia, while sharing the deadpan humor of Malaysian expatriate Tsai Ming-liang; it's the combination of these virtues that makes a Woo a promising filmmaker to watch. His parallel narratives, about a lonely, displaced widower and a teenager who'll do anything to make a quick buck (including selling the girl he's courting to a brothel in order to purchase an exotic fish that supposedly reveals winning lottery numbers to its owner), are simultaneously tragic and very funny -- a rare achievement, to be sure.

Love Conquers All

Even better is Tan Chui Mui's Love Conquers All, which also offers you-are-there realism and humor, though here in the service of a meditation on troubled young love. Disturbingly, the thread of young women being sold into prostitution by their boyfriends again surfaces, but where Woo plays the occurrence for dark comedy, Tan presents it quite matter-of-factly as an unpleasant speed bump in his not-quite-a-love-story-despite-the-title. There's no voice-over narration (what's going on in these characters' heads is often something of a mystery) or non-diegetic music (aside from over the end credits), yet the auteur Tan seems most indebted to is the great Terrence Malick. From the film's lyrical, elusive tone to the frequent glimpses of unspoiled natural beauty, Love Conquers All is undoubtedly the best Malaysian Malick movie ever made. It's also decidedly preferable to anything David Gordon Green's put out.

Help Me, Eros

Speaking of directorial disciples, the fest's biggest disappointment (for me, anyway -- Teresa really liked it) was Help Me, Eros by Tsai's leading man of choice, Lee Kang-sheng. Like Lee's debut feature, 2003's The Missing (not to be confused with the Ron Howard-helmed Western of the same name), his latest is one hundred percent Tsai rip-off in terms of style and mise-en-scene. I gave the earlier film an unenthusiastic review a few years, but eventually came around on it -- not because I believe Lee has anything unique to offer aesthetically, but because on repeat viewings, I felt the film did have interesting things to say about desperation and loneliness.

Both concepts are central again in Help Me, Eros, but here, I'm fairly certain Lee is without any original ideas. In a nut-shell, this is a far less provocative, though no less explicit, retread of Tsai's superb The Wayward Cloud, centering on a suicidal man who smokes a lot of weed and has a lot of sex with adult entertainers (coping methods or symptoms of his ennui?). Of course, it's frequently borderline hilarious and looks fantastic, but can't the same -- and so much more -- be said of any Tsai film? In its scenes of acrobatic lovemaking, it lacks The Wayward Cloud's anti-pornographic gut punch, yet at the same time, it's about as erotic as a blow-up doll.

Lust, Caution (dir. Ang Lee)

If you're looking for real steam, opt for Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, which screened before a visibly psyched sell-out crowd in the supersized Visa Screening Room. Ang's always been a pro when it comes swoony, poetic eroticism, but his latest effort's rough, passionate sex scenes are legitimately shocking; Ang no doubt earned his NC-17 tag. With every pelvic thrust and orgasmic moan, the packed house collectively gasped. Presumably, this is less because we were a bunch of prudes, and more because the scenes' aggressor is Tony Leung, Hong Kong cinema's equivalent to Cary Grant. Imagine, for a second, Grant positioned forcefully on Grace Kelly's back, boning the hell out of her, and you'll understand our sense of surprise.

The film, a tragic romance that fits neatly alongside Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in Ang's back-catalogue, follows the strategic seduction of a Japanese collaborator by a disguised resistance activist. In both its sleeping-with-the-enemy subject and World War II-era backdrop, Lust, Caution would make for a terrific double-feature with Paul Verhoeven's Black Book. The film's final moments are heartbreaking, but conveniently lost in the romantic/erotic shuffle is the major coup of Ang, a Taiwanese-American, having made a Hollywood-backed piece of Chinese nationalist propaganda.

The Duchess of Langeais

Though far less sensational, Jaques Rivette's The Duchess of Langeais is another sort of meditation on doomed love. Adapted very faithfully (or so I've read) from Balzac's Thirteen trilogy, Rivette's latest has less in common with his previous Balzac-inspired efforts (La Belle Noiseuse, Out 1) than with fellow French New Waver Eric Rohmer's woefully overlooked The Lady and the Duke. Both Duchess and Lady are examples of literary period pieces done exquisitely, patiently, vibrantly; Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and Terence Davies' The House of Mirth also come to mind. Light years from middlebrow Merchant-Ivory territory, Rivette's film is a late-career masterwork, passionately rendered and perfectly executed, lush in its meticulous production design yet thoughtful and restrained in its novelistic structure.

The Girl Cut in Two

Also screening as part of the fest's Spotlight on France series was Claude Chabrol's latest scathing critique of bourgeoisie mores (or lack thereof). The Girl Cut in Two is deceptively packaged as a romantic comedy that grows increasingly less romantic as the narrative -- a revered novelist and spoiled playboy compete for bed time with a local news station's naïve weathergirl -- progresses. It's rather like Bridget Jones's Diary, but a version where Hugh Grant's character brings Bridget to a group sex club on her birthday and Colin Firth's -- spoiler alert! -- jealously shoots Grant's (or perhaps vice-versa?). If you're a fan of recent Chabrol, this is worthwhile; it's reminiscent of 2003's The Flower of Evil, except not as good. Either way, I could've done without the denouement's pointless literalization of the titular metaphor.

Ma Wu Jia

The Girl Cut in Two could've been just as aptly titled "The Film Cut in Two", albeit in uneven halves. The murder that occurs about two-thirds of the way through irrevocably alters the tone of what had, up to that point, been a pretty funny comedy of (bad) manners. But Chabrol's wasn't the only film at the fest that hinged on an unexpected killing. Ma Wu Jia, the impressive though clearly under-funded debut feature by Zhou Ye (who was in attendance at the screening and seemed like a lovely guy), has a radical, ghastly secret up its sleeve.

In both its structure and its rugged lyricism, Zhou's film resembles the best work of Atom Egoyan. As the elliptical narrative unfolds, the sense that we're missing something key lingers, but when that something reveals itself, near the movie's end and its plot's chronological conclusion, it hits you like a ton of bricks. Set in the Guangxi province, near the Chinese-Vietnamese border, Ma Wu Jia tells the story of a family stricken, to various degrees of severity, by some sort of tropical medical condition that results in fainting. The youngest of the two brothers is, we're told, in need of a new kidney. In the absence of a father, the older brother, from whose name the film takes its title, assumes a position of familial responsibility, looking after his schoolteacher mother and adorable but troublemaking little brother. It's a lot to ask of a junior high school kid, but he mostly accepts his duties readily, until, perhaps, those challenges are too much for him to handle.

Coping Strategies: The 26th Vancouver International Film Festival - Part Two >

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