Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Preview: Art of the Real 2019

As an adventurous spectator of cinema who writes about films and very much interested in where cinema is headed as an art form, I can say enough that Art of the Real, a film series that showcases innovative, daring, non-narrative films, has been a great wealth of resource and a place of discovery over the years.

Since its inception in 2013, Art of the Real at New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center has been celebrating genre-bending, non-narrative filmmaking. In its 6th year, the series presents new such works by filmmakers from around the world, plus retrospective by Japanese experimental filmmaker Toshio Matstumoto's non fiction work and a tribute to the late Lebanese filmamker Jocelyne Saab. If you are a curious about the possibilities of cinema as an art form, and hungry for something new and thought provoking as well as entertaining, Art of the Real series is the place to be.

The series runs 4/18 - 4/28. For tickets and more info, please visit FSLC website.

Closing Time
Swiss filmmaker Nicole Vögele's observational film Closing Time focuses on a tiny late night food stall owned by Mr. Kuo and Mrs. Lin, under freeway overpass in Taipei. The film leisurely explores the surroundings of this night neighborhoods - an arcade parlor owned by a young couple, a dollar store next door, a wayward dog waiting for its long lost owner, a late night/early morning market where Mr. Kuo shops. Stragglers converse over a rice porridge with side dishes about the weather - the recent strong typhoon destroyed domestic produce, leaving not too much choices for Mr. Kuo to shop for ingredients, about the changing neighborhoods, about working too much... The couple prepares and cooks 6 nights a week. We barely get to see them in daytime. The sky is always dawn violet, the street is filled with thousands of mopeds, traffic lights and signs of the shops reflected on the puddles, with the sounds of the night. You get used to the rhythm of this working class microcosm. It's quiet and somnambulistic.

On his moped, Mr Kuo takes off on the road in the later part of the film and ends up in a small town down in the south of the country. We don't know what conspired for him to take this path. Was he tired of his daily routine? Did he want to get away? Don't matter. We are afforded to a lush scenery of Taiwan's countryside. Beautifully composed in Super 16mm in a rainy season of Taiwan, Closing Time is a contemplative film shedding a light on a part of the world that rarely gets attention.

Those Who Desire
Valencia in southern Spain is a home of the Colombicultura, an exclusively male subculture where brightly colored male pigeons train and compete. Filmmaker Elena López Riera who grew up in the region, documents one of these competitions. The lone female pigeon is released in the air. Soon all male pigeons take to the air, chasing after her. There are amazing amount of rules and all these judges with walkies, watch intently every single move of these horny pigeons. It's not the speed, the narrator say, but lust and ability to conquer. I don't know what that means exactly. We see the swarm of pigeons in the air, on the ground. It's an orgiastic sight. But the competition ends due to bad weather before anything is determined.

Those Who Desire is the grossest projection of macho culture I've ever seen, but it's also fascinating.

Karelia: International with Monument
Karelia, the Northwest republic of The Russian Federation, bordering Finland has a rich cultural, political history. It had been occupied by Sweden, Finland and Russia. Spanish filmmaker Andrés Duque tries to link the cultural significance- the origins of Finnish epic where legends and magic with today's Karelia and ends up with documenting Orthodox Christian family, the Pankratevs, living in the remote area surrounded by nature, practicing some of the shamanism rituals handed down from generations. This first part of planned two part film about the region, Duque also digs up the not so flattering history of Stalin era massacres that took place in the same woods where Pankratev children play, and the Putin regime's effort to rewrite the history. Interesting history lesson contrasts with idylic family life in Karelia.

Movement of a Nearby Mountain
Movement of a Nearby Mountain starts with a narration which tells a water fairy who was captured by hunters. In order to free from impending enslavement, the fairy promises the eternal riches pointing to the mountains. Iron. "Gold lasts a breath, silver lasts a lifetime and iron lasts forever". Soon as fairy was let go, it disappears into the water laughing. Its laughter forever lingering in the forest. This narrations repeats at the end of the film. Once in German, the other in Igbo.

Cliff is a Nigerian man who owns and operates a chopshop in the Austrian Alps. He works there, cooks and eats there, shaves there - seems like his spends his waking life there. He buys cars, refurbishes, sells them whole or parts and also exports them to Nigeria. He deals with Hungarians and other Eastern European customers, sometimes in English, sometimes in German. Sometimes things heat up haggling the prices, but he seems to have his usual customers and well liked. But he is usually alone, spending days working. He sings Christian hymns under his breath.

We see a man of two worlds, bound by metal. The chorus of insects in the Nigerian jungle at night carries over the driving shot in the snowy Austrian Alps on autobahn. Sebastian Brameshuber's contemplation on these contrasts and the intimate portrait of one man against the stunning forest backdrop speaks volumes without saying much.

Swarm Season
Swarm Season
Hawaii's Big Island at a glance, is both a paradise and hellscape: the luscious vegetation along the coast contrasting vast black volcanic field created by overflowing volcanic activity inland that resembles the surface of Mars. Filmmaker Sarah Christman examines the intersection of elemental and superficial, nature and technology, ancient traditions and development, looking inward and space exploration, extinction and survival through the eyes of Manu, a preteen girl and her family who are in beekeeping business.

Manu helps out with her mom's honey producing by tracking wild bees and locating their beehives and relocating them. But she is also an average girl of her age, playing with My Little Pony toys in the sand and daydream while laying in the field. There are biologists collecting queen bees from the hives to study their swarming patterns and their survival.

Manu's dad is a tribal activist protesting the construction of another large telescope on top of the sacred volcanic mountain, Mauna Kea (13,803 ft). Then there is a group of astronaut training for Mars exploration in isolation on the mountain- ideal training ground because of similar climate (lack of oxygen and rough, barren terrain).

Swarm Season features some spectacular scenery of molten lava flowing out to sea, miles of barren black field created by volcanic eruptions, the underwater explosions as well as intimate tender moments with Manu and her family. The film's philosophical musings and seeing the bigger picture don't overshadow its anthropological study of its people and surroundings. It's a great film.

I've seen filming process as germination in one other film recently. It was Anocha Suwichakornpong's superb By the Time It Gets Dark. Where as the idea of film relating to germination was more of metaphorical one in By the Time, Tamer Hassan, Armand Yervant Tufenkian's Accession is more of a literal one. 13 correspondences in letter form about sending seeds are read mostly by someone related to the persons who wrote it, in various places and times in America, over the lovely hand processed 16mm footage. There are no other diegetic sound or effects sound to accompany these images and the narrations.

Accession is a testament of America as an agricultural society. Seed keeping, passed down to generations in families, is a dying tradition, so is the celluloid. Bringing forth new life year after year and the nurturing those who sow is somewhat equated here with the tradition of filming and creative process of so called 'experimental films'. Lovely, melancholic and resonant, Accession is a lovely piece of cinema.

Acid Forest
Screen Shot 2019-03-31 at 7.22.10 AM
Curonian Spit, a scenic peninsula in Lithuania is a Unesco Heritage site. It's also the home of Curonian Spit, a scenic peninsula in Lithuania is a Unesco Heritage site. It's also the home of Acid Forest, a swat of forests full of dead pine trees occupied by thousands of big, black, migrating cormorants who made those trees their homes. It's a tourist attraction. There is an elevated wooden platform to take in the scenery. Many tourists from all over the world climb up the wooden stairs to witness the devastating view. They all have something to say in their native language. Some comments that it looks like a nuclear fallout, or tornado aftermath. The guide explains to gaggle of Japanese tourists that trees died of the birds shitting on them constantly, to their amazement. Some invokes Hitchcock's Birds.

Many of these observations and amateur theories are downright hostile. Many jokes about having a gun and shooting them all down. Many complain that the birds are protected by the EU laws. Filmmaker Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė observes all the human activities from above, from a bird's eye view. Constant fly over shots of the whitened branches of the pine trees reveal thousands of these birds making home in Curonian Spit, oblivious of human crowing with their opinions down below.

A biologist is heard explaining to a TV crew that many of misconception about the birds are untrue, making a point that cormorants have existed since the ages of dinosaurs and it's not only their droppings that kill the forests. But we see the human interference at the end as we control much of our nature's destiny, unfortunately.

Walden consists of 13 slow 360° controlled panning shot from left to right. Each shot lasts about 10 minutes. It starts from Austrian forest where trees a being cut down with a buzz saw. Then the lumber is transported by trains, trucks, boats all the way to the Amazon, the lumber is finally transported by hands deep into the jungle. The film can be a slog for someone craving for a narrative or character to hold on to, but the key here is giving yourself up to the flow as the panning, moving picture creates its own steady velocity.

Each stage strategically stationed and shot in wide format and 50 fps for maximum coverage and the smooth movement, Swiss filmmaker Daniel Zimmerman's film takes an ironic, paradoxical look at a journey of timber in a global economy we are living in, done in a vigorously formalist approach.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Interview: Bi Gan on Long Day's Journey into Night

Bi Gan
There are many talented young filmmakers out there but no one impressed me with their first couple of highly ambitious and accomplished films like a 30-year old Chinese filmmaker Bi Gan did. The sheer technical prowess and visual and literal poetry of his debut film Kaili Blues in 2015 left me speechless. And ever since its debut at Cannes last year, Bi's sophomore effort, Long Day's Journey into Night had become, even before I found out that the last half of the film was shot in one continuous take in 3D, my most anticipated film of 2018. When I finally saw it at NYFF, I was in cinema heaven.

Cut from the same philosophical cloth as Resnais and Tarkovsky and his visual language llneage traces back to that of Hitchicock, Lynch and Wong Kar Wai, watching Bi's film feels like a waking dream and unlike any other film experience I've had previously.

The film became an unlikely success in mainland China, thanks to its distributor's sly marketing campaign last winter, enraging many moviegoers who were expecting a linear narrative romance that is shot in 3D.

So without further a do, here is my conversation with Bi Gan:

I watched the film at last year’s NYFF. It was definitely my favorite film last year. Even though I don’t want to ask you about technical questions, I can’t help being overwhelmed by its mesmerizing visuals. Obviously I am talking about uncut the last 57 minute 3D portion of the film. What I’m wondering is, 3D technology is usually used by filmmakers to give the audience the experience close to reality. But here you are using it to the opposite effect. You are trying to emulate a dream. How did this idea come about? And what do you make of the 3D technology?

Bi Gan: My first film Kaili Blues was about time. So when I decided to make the next film, I kept going back to the ideas of dreams and memories. I thought about what would be the best way to express that. Then I thought I would find it maybe in 3D. Of course in the past, when they use that kind of technology, it’s mostly in commercial films. Art films were not utilizing 3D in that way, except for some experimental films. I wanted to combine art film and 3D to portray dreams. I thought 3D would be best suited for portraying more ‘realistic reality’ of a dream in a long take just because the whole sequence is in night time and it’s a long night. I wanted us to lose ourselves in this different dimension. So even though the film is only a hundred and twenty minutes, when we think back to it, it is very much like our memory which is three dimensional and that’s how I wanted to portray it and also have the audience experience it after the fact like a lingering memory.

It was a big box office success in China for a small indie film. How did that happen? Were you surprised by its success?

When I did Kaili Blues, I made it with nothing. Yet it made several millions locally at the box office. People around me were pretty surprised that the film became kind of a minor success. In terms of this film's release, I wasn’t surprised at the box office considering how they promoted the film- as a romance film, but what was surprising for me was after people have watched it, they told me ‘you are not a crossover director. You are still just an arthouse director.’ Hearing that gave me a jolt of self-check because I was made to believe that I was an art house director whose work has a crossover appeal, back to just an art house director. I was put in place. (laughs)

The audience might have been sold short on romance, but I’d like to think that your film is a game changer for Chinese independent cinema. It seems like a different landscape now than the 1990s and 2000s when Jia Zhangke started making films. Is there a bigger market and support for independent films in China?

For general audience, they just want to know whether the film is good or not. It’s not about whether my film is an art house film. So when a film like Long Day is released, the audience doesn’t quite understand what to make of it. For a lot of them, this film is the first film they watch that is not a widely seen commercial movie. And so they still might not accept it. But at least they watched it. So that’s kind of a positive step.

But there are so many movie theaters in China at the moment, doesn't that allow more room for art house films to be shown?

More screens don’t mean that they will be showing art house films. It simply means there are more screens to show more commercial movies, So no. there are still less opportunities to show anything other than commercial movies.

I have to ask, how many takes did you do of that single take?

The sequence took two tries to make it happen. The first time we did three takes. It took one to two month of preparation and all of those takes did not work. So we had to go back in and prepare all over again. So the second time around, it was five takes and it wasn’t until the last two takes that we succeeded and it was the final take that we see on the screen.

Aside from all the technical stuff, shooting it at night and in the rain, was it a difficult shoot for you?

For me, filmmaking is always hard. So at the end of the day, I achieve something worthwhile then that is good enough for me. But the hardest one was the 3D night shoot. 2D shots we could adjust lighting but for the 3D one take, we had to prep everything way in advance and you can’t move anything around so it was a very stressful experience. Because of lighting master Wang Ju Ming, we were able to accomplish what you saw on the screen in 3D.

Due to loose narrative, was it a challenge for the actors?

During the script level I was already working with the actors. I was describing what I want them to be doing. But it was a collaborative thing where I constantly asked them questions. It was the same even on set, to develop character traits and movement and stuff like that. There is a sequence where an actor is eating an apple, that was a decided on set and was a very last minute, very collaborative decision. I like the film set to be very relaxed. I want actors to be relaxed. I try to have a relaxed, collaborative environment as much as possible.

Kaili looks mysterious and romantic at night. Is it like that only in your films or does it really have some mysterious properties?

So when my friends come to visit Kaili, they feel like I lied to them about what Kaili looks like. I mean, what you see on screen is a dream version loosely based on memories. But in real life Kaili is a 4th tier province in China. It’s very modern. The good news about being in there is within twenty to thirty minutes you can drive down a winding roads to beautiful rivers. The sky is very blue and beautiful. But other than that, it’s a pretty much any other modern city with all the urban comforts you can find anywhere.

Oh damn. Really? That's disappointing.

Yeah I lied to you with my films.

Can you talk about the significance of the color in the film? There is the color of green - the green book, the green dress. Then there is red.

When I was setting up the film, I wanted to set up the color for characters. I thought green would be a good color to represent the female lead. And as her personality changes to something more realistic, I wanted to slowly evolve it to red. In classic mysterious female characters in films, whenever the door opens they disappear in to the background. Kaili itself is pretty green in general and so I liked the idea of her being in that green dress so she can disappear whenever into the background.

Love that canto pop, Reason to be Strong (by Karen Mok) and that melancholic Japanese song (by Naoko Ken) at the end. How did you decide on those songs?

Quite simple. I grew up listening to those songs. And I wanted them put in my movie.

Those are excellent, excellent choices. So what’s next for you?

I just started to write. I don’t know what it’s going to turn in to yet. I am in the process of writing things down.

Please keep making art films and I think the film is really tremendous and I hope the film makes a lot of money so you can make more art films. I thank you for talking to me.

Thank you. I will work really hard to make the next film.

Long Day's Journey into Night has a limited release on 4/12. Check Kino Lorber website for the city near you.