Not Fade Away: Notes on the 27th Vancouver International Film Festival

Film festivals — like Olympic Games and political campaigns — typically have themes, ready made to print on programs and t-shirts, and (typically) these themes don’t mean a whole heck of a lot, either because they’re too broad or generic or because they’re ultimately more representative of the programmers’ intentions than those of the varied filmmakers whose work is being featured. Any avid festivalgoer, however, can tell you that unofficial themes or prevailing concepts do begin to emerge after watching a certain number of movies back to back. Such themes are more meaningful than the trademarked slogans, but usually no less arbitrary, as they’re basically just indicative of that viewer’s itinerary, a select grouping of films naturally determined by his or her aesthetic or political (or thematic) preferences and prejudices.

Once in a while, though, such an attempt at tying together some otherwise very different films feels like a telling gauge of climate that, plus or minus a few degrees, isn’t too far off the current temperature. Either way, the selection of films at the 27th Vancouver International Film Festival that we happened to attend seemed dominated by the idea of memory — how it works, why it works the way it does, why certain events linger in our brain or come back to haunt us, how to overcome guilt and long-simmering grudges. These were films about the moments that fade with time, and by contrast, the ones we can’t ever seem to shake.

The two movies at this year’s fest that felt most representative of this trend were Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir and Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City. The former was one of the most fervently discussed and generally lauded films from this year’s Cannes line-up; the latter I’d heard next to nothing in advance about, but inked in to our schedule based on my enduring admiration for Davies’ work.

Waltz with Bashir (dir. Ari Folman / Israel / 2008)

Waltz with Bashir, an “animated documentary” inspired by the Sabra and Shatila massacres and the events leading up to and surrounding them, is indeed as stunning and as original as the early reports suggested. It was also, hands-down, the most problematic film I saw in Vancouver. In its boldness of vision, Waltz flirts with greatness. Like Pixar’s Wall*E earlier this year, Folman’s film makes a compelling case for the unique importance of animation within cinema. There are sequences in both movies that are literally the stuff of dreams (or, often nightmares), images too impossibly vivid for live-action film to replicate. But where Wall*E simply goes Disney-bland with its environmental message in its more formulaic second half, Waltz is an infinitely tougher work with which to grapple.

The first question, it seems to me, is whether the film’s heady, audacious visual style, which will presumably be its chief selling point once its opens commercially-overwhelms, or functions symbiotically with, the seriousness of its subject. For the most part, Folman guides his singular format in interesting directions and marries it seamlessly to the conversations he’s conducting with old military acquaintances, but there are points when Waltz seems just a little too enamored by its sense of novelty. More importantly yet, however fresh Folman’s take may be, it doesn’t necessarily render his account any more edifying than it might have been otherwise. After the film’s inevitably hypnotic effect had worn off, I couldn’t help but wonder if it might have benefited markedly from a touch of contextualization of the conventional documentary variety and a bit less flash.

Of Time and the City (dir. Terence Davies / UK / 2008)

Of Time and the City is a much quieter animal, to be sure, but it’s no less preoccupied by its director’s ruminations on the past. It’s sort of a British retort to Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (which I thoroughly enjoyed at last year’s VIFF), and, I’m happy to report, Davies’ film is precisely as good and as thoughtful as its Canadian predecessor. In place of Manitoba’s chilly capital, Davies tackles his hometown of Liverpool, another city with less than ideal weather but plenty of strange, fascinating history. This, like Maddin’s film, is wholly personal — so local heroes turned cultural icons the Beatles get about three or four minutes of screen-time while Davies’ devout Catholicism turned atheism is considered at much greater length.

The film’s most potent image, slotted between ghostly archival clips, is of a Catholic Church redeveloped as a trendy nightspot teeming with young folks out for a good time. It’s especially key in that it’s emblematic of both Davies’ loss of religious faith and his progressively waned interest in youth-driven popular culture (he prefers ballroom dancing and Golden Age screen stars to rock and roll and night clubs). For fans of Davies’ work, this is close to essential, as the director (in a commanding baritone voice-over reminiscent of Orson Welles’ narration gigs) ponders and reveals the origins of the deeply classical sensibility that he carries with him to every project he undertakes.

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (dir. Eric Rohmer / France / 2006)

Looking back at a much more distant era is Eric Rohmer’s The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, based on a fifth century French folk tale. Supposedly Rohmer’s final film, this is both a quintessential autumnal work (wise and reflective, unhurried and deft in its storytelling) and a much more sprightly and breezy offering than, say, Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice or Kurosawa’s Rhapsody in August. Which is to say, this Rohmer all the way: supremely talk, visually sumptuous, and (mildly) risqué.

If the film’s subject is nothing less than the nature of love (fidelity versus casual flings, gaps in communication between the sexes, etc.), Rohmer’s touch is so light and nimble that extended philosophical debates and bawdy drag comedy coalesce beautifully into an immensely pleasurable movie that expertly balances silliness with seriousness — and knows well just how thin the line between the two can be. If it is his last movie, it’s a terrific one.

Hansel and Gretel (dir. Yim Pil-Sung / South Korea / 2007)

Also tackling an ancient fable (a collective memory of sorts) is Yim Pil-Sung’s Hansel and Gretel, which involves the famous children’s story rather than actually dramatizing it. Yim, who was on hand to introduce his film and field questions afterwards, cited The Night of the Hunter as a major inspiration. In the film’s fairy tale atmosphere, its skillful use of children, and especially the performance of Hee-soon Park (who turns in a bang-on, note-for-note riff on Robert Mitchum’s terrifying, Christian hymn-singing villain from Night), the influence of Charles Laughton’s masterpiece is entirely evident, but there’s also liberal doses of Tim Burton (the wall-to-wall, candy-colored art direction, courtesy Seong-hie Ryu, the production designer of The Host and Oldboy) and even Harold Ramis circa Groundhog Day, at least in its superior, darkly comic opening half.

Later, the film (like many other Asian horror efforts) gets too convoluted for its own good, and while unexpected twists have, for better or worse, become genre prerequisites, Hansel and Gretel‘s feels totally out of place and makes for far too abrupt a tonal shift. Blood and guts are commonplace in horror, natch, but fairly explicit physical and sexual violence against children tends to throw one through a loop.

Summer Hours (dir. Olivier Assayas / France / 2008)

Hansel and Gretel might’ve been a truly effective indictment of family-related trauma with a touch of balance and restraint. Yim should takes notes from two of the festival’s finest offerings, Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours and Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. Both are French, both focus on colorful clans dealing with the death (or seemingly impending death) of their matriarchs, and both completely nail the shifting dynamics of family interaction

For Assayas’ part, he’s working closer to the humanistic, character-centered territory of 2004’s wonderful Clean. This a world apart from the slick, neo-noir environs of demonlover and his previous film, Boarding Gate, though as in those films, the cast of characters is a decidedly post-national lot. Juliette Binoche’s Adrienne designs clothing in New York, younger brother Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) works for Puma out of Shanghai, first-born Frédéric (Charles Berling) keeps Mom (a widow who devotes most of her time to cultivating the posthumous legacy of her uncle, a highly esteemed artist) company in France and writes books on economics. Of course, when she dies, the only one of the three in favor of retaining her house (and all the childhood memories that it represents) is Frédéric, while the other two and their families divvy up her valuable collections of artwork and furniture

Summer Hours is movingly accurate as a look at the sad process of attaching price tags and figuring out what to do with the things that are left behind following the death of a loved one, but it’s also a vigorous study of the roles, of varying importance, that art plays in our day-to-day lives. Jérémie likes some of the work by his famous great-uncle, Frédéric thinks it’s all superb, Adrienne is mostly just concerned with how much some manuscripts will fetch at auction through Christie’s. Their late mother, meanwhile, had a much closer relationship with her uncle than her children had previously understood-a bomb that Assayas (who also prefers getting up close and personal with the art and artists he reveres) seems to view as nothing particularly shocking.

A Christmas Tale (dir. Arnaud Desplechin / France / 2008)

Where Summer Hours is subtle and understated, perhaps the kind of triumph that some critics would mistake as “minor”, A Christmas Tale is big and bold, legitimately operatic, and packed to the brim with detail and meticulously sculpted mini-narratives within its 150-minute runtime. Like Tokyo Story and Fanny and Alexander and The Royal Tenenbaums before it, Desplechin’s film is a exquisite slice of family history, at once, tender and savage. As with those other films, it also represents a sort of stylistic and thematic apotheosis for its creator. Desplechin revisits many of his favorite recurring elements here (elders with ailments, suicidal impulses, infidelity depicted very matter-of-factly) and works again with Emmanuelle Devos, Catherine Deneuve, and the brilliant Mathieu Almaric, who is quickly solidifying his reputation as one of the best character actors on the planet. Everything works here, and Desplechin pulls it all off with genius precision to spare.

Perfect Life (dir. Emily Tang / China/Hong Kong / 2008)

A Christmas Tale was almost certainly the most accomplished and fully realized film that I saw at this year’s festival, but the most significant revelation was Emily Tang’s Perfect Life, which took home the fest’s Dragons & Tigers award for the best East Asian breakthrough effort. So, in picking my top film from among those we screened, I’d say Perfect Life by a hair because, to my tastes at least, the thrill of discovering a major new talent trumps the satisfaction of an established master re-delivering the goods.

Tang’s film (her second feature, following 2001’s Conjugation, which I regretfully haven’t seen) was co-produced by Jia Zhang-ke and shares many of his principal concerns: the socioeconomic contradictions ever-present in contemporary Chinese life, the promise and nervous adjustment that comes with relocation, the glaring disparities between rural and urban existence. In its way, Tang’s film is as exciting and eye-opening a breakthrough as Jia’s Platform was eight years ago. Its time-span is about half that of Jia’s film, but the scope of its ambition and the vitality of what it has to say are remarkably comparable.

Perfect Life opens in wintry northeast China (formerly Manchuria), home to Li Yueying (Yao Qianyu), our 21-year-old heroine, who spends her time getting her picture snapped in front of exotic photo booth back-drops like “Manhattan, England” and working in a factory producing prosthetic limbs. From there, the film takes us and her to Hong Kong, where Li works as a maid at a swanky hotel, and then, five years later, to the rapidly expanding southern border city of Shenzhen. Throughout her fictional narrative, Tang seamlessly integrates (ostensible) documentary footage of another woman, a decade or so older than Li, whose path in life serves as an ambiguous yet thought-provoking contrast to that of the protagonist.

Repeatedly, the director suggests the possibility of traditional genre tracks (romantic comedy, crime thriller, Crash-style everything’s-connected mosaic), and then pulls the rug out from under each such suggestion. It’s a strategy that functions brilliantly as a parallel to the film’s theme (implied by its title) regarding the often sizable gap between our projections and fantasies in life and the more imperfect realities that meanwhile develop. Tang’s final shot is the film’s (and probably the festival’s) most haunting: Li times her camera to snap a picture of her holding up her wedding photo, her face nearly expressionless. Few scenes better capture the moment in life when, unable to fully recall how we got from Point A to Point B, we realize that the expectations we once held for our future have dissipated into thin air, memories of lives unlived.