Monday, September 27, 2021

Octane Baby

Titane (2021) - Ducournau Titane-750x422 How do you describe Titane, Julia Ducournau's Palme d'Or winner, a follow up to sensational debut, Raw? A Cronenberged feminist fever dream? A J.G. Ballardian vision of the future? A sexed up version of Electra Complex with Twelfth Night thrown in? Remove all the glitzy exterior and many cringe worthy moments from it, Titane is a sweet father-daughter story. But it is how it is told. And it is told with gusto.

Young Alexia is first seen in the car driven by her dad. Distracted by her behavior, dad loses the control of the car and crashes. Alexia ends up with a metal plate in her head. Now grown up Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is oiled up blonde working at a car show as an exotic dancer. Her overtly sexy dance routines earn many fans. But she also is subjected to daily harrassment and unwanted sexual advances along with her co-workers. It is clear that she has some deep seeded daddy issues as well as intimacy issues, as she kills off those who wants to be close to her with pluging her trusty metal chopstick that she uses to hold up her lanky hair, into the ear of her victims. She seems to have connections with those big muscle cars she represents at the shows and has loud orgasms in the cars masturbating.

The bodies pile up and now Alexia is on the run, disguising her appearances and taping her boobs to appear as a lanky boy. She also is pregnant and car engine oil like substance are coming out of her orifices. She finds a missing person's leaflet and decides to be an imposter as a long lost son of Vincent (Vincent Lindon), a macho captain of a firehouse in a small town. Vincent, who has been hoping to find his son Adrien for so long, when beaten and battered (self-inflicted) and mute Alexia shows up, pretending to be his son, he is overjoyed. It doesn't matter that Alexia doesn't resemble his son, or why his returned son is cagey about his appearances. He has his son back and he's gonna groom him as a macho firefighter like himself.

The story Ducournau presents is totally bonkers. And it features some of the funniest scenes including a crazy firehouse party, which is very much like a college frathouse party with lots of shirtless, ripped firefighters dancing and binge drinking and it being sabotaged by Alexia/Adrien's sexy girl showroom dancing is perhaps the most cringe inducing scene, since Sacha Baron Cohen's cage fight/makeout scene in Bruno.

Ducournau has an agenda to fulfill, to bring down the patriachy to its knee in the most shocking way while rubbing male gazing sexism in its face. And it is glorious.

Vincent Lindon, the reigning symbol of French masculinity, gives an uninhibited performance as a bullheaded macho man succumbing to his desire to take care of his offspring even if it turns out to be a daughter instead of a son. Agathe Rousselle, seesawing between menace and volnerability in a very tricky and physically demanding role, is a real treasure. Ducournau is a new breed of filmmaker who isn't afraid of breaking conventions. With Larrain's Ema early this year, Titane is one of the most exhilarating films I've seen this year.

After New York Premier at NYFF, Titane opens theatrically on 10/1. Please visit Neon website.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Woman

The Souvenir: Part 2 (2021) - Joanna Hogg Souvenir pt 2 At the end of The Souvenir, our protagonist Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a film student, was grappling with the death of her charistmatic, destructive and predatory boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke) and her next chapter in life just beginning. In The Souvenir: Part 2, we pick up right where we left off. The second part of this autobiographical story by director Joanna Hogg, has an air of built in familiarity, like a warm stove in a cold night. Here the mood is uplifted, more celebratory. And it has lots of humor as well which was lacking in the first film. All the peripheral characters in the first one gets more screen time also. And its metatextual movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie gives more depths and reflects on how we remember/misremember the past with blesmishes and all. Like her other films, Part 2 reflects on the life lessons, and the fact that only way to learn them is to live through it. It's a beautifully realized and impeccably acted film. Oh, it also has the best soundtrack of the season.

With Anthony's shadow still largely looming in Julie's life, she is still grieving and suffering greatly with the guilty conscience that she could've somehow saved him. Deep down she knows she couldn't have, but she very much wants someone else to tell her it wasn't her fault.

In order to graduate from school, with her circle of mates, she decides to embark on making a film about her experience with Anthony. When she presents her script to get the funding from school, the faculty committee is less than impressed with her presentation: first of all, her script is held together with red ribbons and doesn't even have scene headings. She also decided to use her fellow student Garance (Adriane Labed), instead of a professional actor to play the lead. Even though it's based on her life experience - which is a dramatic concession because she originally wanted to make a movie about working class people in Sunderland, the commitee feels it's out of her character and doesn't seem there's enough connections between main characters. The irony is, it was the same committee who wanted to stir her away from making a film on the subject that she doesn't know much about. So essentially, Julie is (re)making The Souvenir as her graduate film. With school funding for her movie in jeopardy, Julie asks her supportive mom (Tilda Swinton, Byrne's real-life mother) again for the fiancial help.

It's not only school committee's approval that Julie has to deal with, after a grueling pre-production process in choosing actors - too good looking, need more authenticity, etc, she runs into squables and has to deal with clash of egos everywhere she turns and its mostly due to her inexperience and incompetence. Just like every young filmmakers, she doesn't know what she is doing most of the time!

Hogg, a veteran TV director with decades of experiences, who started her feature film career in 2007, has no qualms about showing her young self's incongruity, and bullshit personas of twenty something always project on themselves. The hubris of youth is universal and there is no need to be apologetic or embarrassed about.

Swinton Byrne is great as a naive young woman collecting all the souvenir in her life in shaping herself as an artist. Tilda Swinton gracefully recedes and disappears into her greying mom role perfectly, playing a woman of privilege tickled by her artistic daughter's endeavor, taking up pottery classes to a varying success. Richard Aoyade steals the show as Patrick, a pompous older student whose career is just taking off. We needed to see more of him in the first film and now we are richly rewarded here. Patrick is first seen directing a huge musical film production on stage. His ego-maniacal behavior on and off the set, shouting at onlookers and reporters, defending his decision to do a musical by pointing his finger at the gloomy London sky. As a gifted comedian, Aoyade's delivery is pitch perfect as Patrick, an extremely arrogant, yet superbly talented individual who lacks social niceties. Hence it is he who can blurt out the painful truth as he sees it for Julie to move on after her 'memorial for Anthony' is done.

A long, fantastical sequence of Julie's thesis film hilariously highlights how an artist sees her creations and how she remembers her experiences versus reality of what happened. The Fellini-esque sequence and out of body experience portrayed in Julie's film has nothing in common with how we perceived her relationship with Anthony in somber The Souvenir, at least in its visual presentation. But it strikes the cord on an emotional level- his death and her heart being shattered to millions of pieces remain true.

All the people we encounter, those little memorable moments we pick up throughout life shape us who we are. The Souvenir: Part 2 is a celebration of that achievement. It's a marvelously inventive, self-effacing film that is also immensely affecting and moving. Definitely one of the year's best.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Perfect Antidote to Covid Lockdown Blues

The Tsugua Diaries (2021) - Fazendeiro, Gomes tsugua diaries Miguel Gomes, no stranger to mixing real life and fiction in such films as Our Beloved Month of August and Arabian Nights: Volume1-3, with co-director Maureen Fazendeiro, whips up a delightful antidote to Covid lockdown blues with a slight romp The Tsugua Diaries. Taking place in a small remote farm in Sintra, near Lisbon, this sun-drenched little cinematic exercise has more ingenuity and charm that's probably made with an equivalent of 1/100th of a Marvel movie-catering budget I am sure.

We start with the day 22 of the diary. There is a rotting quince someone placed on the table. Christa (Christa Alfaitate), Carloto (Carloto Cotta, of Diamantino), and João (João Nunes Monteiro) are first seen at a makeshift party dancing and drinking the night away in the infectious tune of The Night by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons. To hunky Carloto's dismay, he witnesses the beguiling Christa making out with nerdy João. And it turns out, that that was the end of the movie. Don't worry I didn't blow the ending. Even though The Tsugua Diaries is told in reverse, it's not like an intricate puzzle piece or anything. Fazendeiro and Gomes are simply showing the variations and possibilities of day-to-day existence on an isolated movie set in the Covid era.

As the days progress backwards, we get to see the three of them doing house shores, working on butterfly enclosures together and enjoy their time in the pool. It's Joao's diary we are following. But is it João the actor's diary or is it the character João's? We slowly realize that they are actors in a film. It's the trio's affair for a while, being in the film we are watching, Jules et Jim style love triangle maybe? There is an air of aimlessness of an improvisational project where anything and everything is permitted, and nothing is normal because of the pandemic. 

The Covid element doesn't kick in until the talk of Carloto the actor sneaking out of the compound to surf, breaking the Covid protocols Portuguese Government Health Ministry put out. Now they can't have kissing scenes with Carloto anymore because everyone's rightfully afraid and angry. This explains why Carloto is sleeping separately, alone in a van in the beginning of the film.

Fazendeiro is seen looking at the director's monitor in a separate room laid out in a couch. Later we learn that it's because of she is an ego maniac or lazy, because she is pregnant and told to lie on her back by her doctor. 

The crew and cast meeting gets heated up with the actors not knowing the direction of the film and not well-defined guideline for anything and everything. As the diary goes back, counting down to Day 1, the unused dirty pool is drained and scrubbed by the crew and cast to be used. The rotting quince slowly turns into a fresh one, getting fresher by the day.

Wryly reflecting the nature of 'expect the unexpected' in both life and filmmaking, Fazendeiro and Gomes create a delightful little summer movie that is cinematically inventive while reflecting the state of the worldwide pandemic and its effect on filmmaking. The Tsugua Diaries is a perfect antidote of a movie in our trying times.

Sound and Fury

The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) - Coen the-tragedy-of-macbeth-film With The Tragedy of Macbeth marks the solo outing of Joel Coen as a director, one half of the brothers team behind such classics as No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man. It stars indomitable Denzel Washington as the ambitious, murderous Scotsman and the great Frances McDormand (also the director's wife) as the Lady M. With a great ensemble of the British, Scottish, Irish and American actors, including Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Bertie Carvel and Kathryn Hunter, I have to say, acting in this is fantastic.

But there have been many famous screen adaptations of the Shakespeare’s play before this reiteration. So the first question anyone would naturally ask is, is another adaptation of the famous Scottish play really necessary? Most recently we had a sexy, action packed version directed by Justin Kurzel and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cortillard that no one saw.

Macbeth and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) return after victorious battle over invading Norwegian forces, then encounters witches (?) in the forms of crows. They instill the ideas in the returning warriors that Macbeth will be king and Banquo's offspring will take over down the line. The rest of the film is predicated on that foretelling and Macbeth acting upon it. From the get-go, Lady Macbeth is all over the idea of killing off King Duncan (Gleeson). But after the deed is done and Macbeth assumes the throne, they get increasingly paranoid with guilt, with imaginary approaching heavy steps and bloodstains that never washes away. Sleep no more. Macbeth can never rest easily.

There is nothing wrong with Washington and McDomand's acting, eschewing the bard's juicy monologues with gusto and ease. His greying hair and beard and her wrinkles give their performances more edge, accentuating the aging couple's desperate last shot at glory. But it's Kathryn Hunter who steals the show. She portrays the manifestation of three witches. Her contortionist body movement and cadence of her gravelly voice in the beginning sets the uneasy tone of the whole film.

Shot in black and white in academy ratio, it is closer to filmed stage play than a cinematic adaptation. Its German expressionism inspired, minimalist set design and CGI fog and a murder of crows come across as cheap. And digital cinematography (nonetheless shot by usually great DP Bruno Delbonnel) looks extremely flat and surprisingly uninspired.

Unfortunately, there is nothing special about Coen's directing: there are no battle scenes, the weird vibe has been done much better both in Polanski's and Welles's version as well as in Kurosawa's Throne of Blood. It's as if Coen couldn't decide what direction he wanted to go and took the most boring, lazy route. The result is boring, flat adaptation with hodge-podge styles from other classic period pieces, as if Macbeth the film is wearing an ill-fitting suit.

Even any semblance of Coen-ness is only briefly found in the appearance of Stephen Root, a character actor and frequent collaborator of the brothers as Porter, a comic relief.

At best, The Tragedy of Macbeth feels like a vanity project where a director trying to please his wife a role she always wanted to play (for 15 years apparently). It also gives a clue to which Coen might be a Garfunkel of the duo.

Friday, September 24, 2021

A Meta-Contemplation on an Artist's Creative Process

Bergman Island (2021) - Hansen-Løve Bergman Island For the last decade, Mia Hansen-Løve, with a string of beautifully written and acted, melancholic films about life and passing of time, has emerged as one of the most highly-regarded directors working today.

Her delicate and subtle films, be it a coming of age tale in Goodbye First Love, about pursuing one's dreams and succumbing in Eden, or about taking life's curve balls in stride in Things to Come, there has always been plenty of evidences of a great writer/director cementing her own unique voice in film world, which is a still very much male-dominanted industry.

It is interesting then, that we see Hansen-Løve digging deeply into the subject that concerns a woman's artistic struggles in finding her own voice while being a longtime partner of someone who's more established and better known, taking a not so guised reference from her real life, for she was a long time partner of director and mentor, Olivier Assayas.

Even though Bergman Island is her first English language film with an international cast -- Vicky Krieps, Tim Roth, Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie -- the theme doesn't quite give enough distance from her real life. Sure, an older man who has a big influence on how a young woman develops and finds her own self has always been there in her films, most recently in Maya.

But her self-reflexiveness was not as out in the open as in Bergman Island. I'm not faulting this move and don't want to call it regressive, but a female director finding her own voice and out of her male partner's shadow in a place called Bergman Island seems quite an unusual choice for already established and well-regarded director. Perhaps that was her intention, though, to differentiate herself and reiterate that her working method is different, that her creative process is not like that of Assayas nor Bergman.

Bergman Island concerns a film director couple Tony (Roth) and Chris (Krieps) coming to Faros Island, where the famed Swedish director Ingmar Bergman made a bulk of his films and had a house there, to work on their new projects. Many writers, filmmakers and architects have been flocking around there to get inspirations from where the maestro lived and worked.

Tony is a world-renowned filmmaker and is always surrounded by adoring fans. It's no different, even on the remote island. He gets invited to the soirées thrown by the Bergman Society, film screenings, and frequently ta;ls on the phone with his producers about his latest project. While Tony works on his new script with ease in the main house, Chris sets up shop in the mill across the yard from him to work on her own script.

She's a little taken aback by the fact that Bergman was not a nice man to be around and had 11 children from nine wives. She also doesn't like the idea that him being a bad father was somehow a prerequisite for him to be a prolific genius. "You think he was changing diapers while being a genius?," a Bergman fan quips. It also bothers her that the beauty of the island -- the sun-kissed coastline, deep blue sea, idealic pastures -- produced a dark, disturbing and pessimistic view of life in many of his films.

After frolicking around the island, she concocts a script about a young woman named Amy, coming to the island for her friend's wedding and confronts her first love, Joseph, again. They have only three days together on the island.

Chris starts telling the story in the hopes of getting some guidance from Tony. Tony attentively listens. And now we are thrown into a unrequited love story of two lovers (Wasikowska and Lie) who were too young to realize what they had and now it's too late to reconnect, in film-within-a-film. Amy, a filmmaker from New York, can't forget Joseph, her first love, even though they both grew up and have moved on with their lives.

The story is slight and without an end. But their love and attraction are palpable. For a long period of time, we only see the couple's story unfolding, as they rekindle their love, then realize they can't be together. From time to time, that story is interrupted by Chris checking on Tony, to see if he is paying attention to her story/film.

There are many funny bits referring to Bergman: like Scenes from a Marriage causing millions of divorces, a Bergman Safari tour, a deadpan projectionist at the Bergman's private theater calling out that he doesn't have a print of Saraband, so Tony and Chris was subjected to watching Cries and Whispers.

The film's meta-ness, the story of Amy and Joseph slowly melding into Chris's own life, suggests that the film Bergman Island is itself is a way of showcasing a filmmaker (Hansen-Løve)'s creative process. And it can come across a little too precious at times. The film is certainly not the usual Hansen-Løve's ultra-wise life observations.

All the ingredients to make a great Hansen-Løve film are here: great assemblage of talented, intriguing actors, great location, self-reflexive storytelling, young love. But it doesn't quite gel together.

We all process our surroundings differently and express ourselves in unique ways. Contrasting oneself to others might be one way. Perhaps Bergman Island is Hansen-Løve's most personal film to date, showing her incongruities and subtle ways towards filmmaking.

Monday, September 20, 2021

A Film Culled from the Sea

The Village Detective: A Song Cycle (2021) - Morrison THE VILLAGE DETECTIVE still Avant-garde filmmaker and artist Bill Morrison, known for his use of decaying, found films and collaborating with innovative contemporary musicians, produced some of the most unique movie/live theater going experiences (Decasia, Miner's Hymns, Dawson City: Frozen Time) over the last few decades. Using plenty of archival materials and found footage, just like with Dawson City, he concocts an intriguing film history lesson while showcasing the hypnotic, decaying celluloid images with The Village Detective: A Song Cycle. The difference here is that the old Soviet film, The Village Detective, was not dug up from the frozen tundra in Yukon Territory but netted from depth of the icy North Sea.

In 2016, an Icelandic lobster trawler hauled in a film canister along with various crustaceans at the bottom of the North Sea. It ended up in the hands of the archivists and film scholars at the Finnish Film Institute. It was the late visionary Icelandic musician and friend of Morrison, Jóhann Jóhannsson, who worked with the director in Miner's Hymns, mentioned the news to him, who took an immediate interest. It contained 4 rolls of seawater brined, muddy, degrading film prints. Many assumed that they contain a very old film. But it turns out to be a 1969 Russian film, The Village Detective, starring Mikhail Zharov as Columbo like detective, in a provincial Russian town, on the case of a missing accordion.

The Village Detective: A Song Cycle submerges itself into an intriguing film history and does its own diligent history detective work. Morrison, along with producer/film scholar Maria Vinogradova, set out their own investigation, giving context to the movie reels found at the bottom of the sea. Like good detectives, they peel away layers of mud and dirt and debris the time has accumulated and connect the dots- the images on the film, its actors, the political climate, film archiving practices (or lack there of), while highlighting the beauty of the physicality of film print as an art object.

Taking advantage of Gosfilmofond, the state run Russian film archive and with the help of their archivists, the film devotes itself going through Russian film history by way of Mikhail Zharov's six-decades spanning career. Zharov, whose immense popularity in Russia was equal to that of Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable at his prime, played many boisterous roles and often sang with an accordion in his hands in many of his films. He was a renowned stage actor and starred in many state propaganda films. But with the country’s antisemitism in the 40s and 50s took a toll on the actor who was married to a Jewish woman from a prominent Jewish family. Even though any charges were dissolved after Stalin’s death, he would get type-casted in the 50s and 60s as he aged.

Going back and forth with old Russian archival footage, many of Zharov's film clips, interviews and the actual footage of The Village Detective found in the sea, set in original accordion soundtrack by David Lang (Requiem for a Dream, The Great Beauty, Wildlife, Youth), Morrison creates a cohesive, entertaining yarn.

Still, all the beauty is in the footage culled from the sea. Damaged and decayed in multitudes of ways, intentionally slowed down and without a dialog track, the audience can savor each passing frames- obscured by scratches, blotches, indecipherable patterns and ghost images that natural elements and time inflicted on the celluloid. With the historical and philosophical context provided by Morrison and co., the film's haunting beauty is amplified greatly.

The Village Detective: A Song Cycle is a celebration of cinema that reflects life and art and its resilience to the test of time both metaphorically and physically.

The Village Detective: A Song Cycle opens in theaters on 9/22 at IFC Center in NYC. Please visit Kino Lorber website for details.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Sobering Reflection on Being American

Blue Bayou (2021) - Chon BLUE BAYOU (2021) Justin Chon writes, directs and stars in a timely, humanistic drama, set in the backwaters of Louisiana, Blue Bayou. It highlights many adoptees facing deportation due to the lack of a strong infrastructure in the nation's adoption system and the recent anti-Asian fervor.

According to advocates of the immigration rights groups' statistics, estimated 25,000 to 45,000 legal adoptees between 1945-1998 may lack US Citizenship. Worse, during recent past few years, many number of these legally adopted Americans were either deported or facing deportation when they had a brush with the law, to countries where their biological parents gave them up when they were babies.

Blue Bayou starts with Antonio (Chon), with a new baby on the way with his wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander), trying to get a second job. His felony record and heavily tattooed exterior don't help the matter too much. It is revealing that he is repeatedly asked where he's from, even though his Baton Rouge dialect is impeccable. Unfortunately, it is an everyday occurrence that we Asian Americans face everyday, even from well-meaning, supposedly educated, liberal people. Antonio politely deflects, “I see why you’d ask that question…”

Antonio, working at a tattoo parlor, is trying to do right by Kathy and his stepdaughter, Jesse (Sydney Kowalske), a button-nosed smarty-pants whom he shares great bonds with. Antonio's circle of friends include his former motorcycle gang buddies, an ICE agent who frequents the tattoo parlor and Parker (Linh Dan Pham, Indochine), a Vietnamese American woman he just met at the hospital.

Things escalate when Jesse's father, Ace (Mark O'Brien), a cop and his racist partner instigate Antonio into returning jabs and arrest him. Antonio is soon handed over to the ICE custody. Even with the help of sympathetic immigration lawyer (Vondie Curtis Hall), with his criminal record, Antonio's chance at the set court 'merit' hearing is diminishing. Even though he was adopted at age 3 and lived his whole life in Louisiana, because of the loopholes in adoption system and anti Asian fervor of late, he is facing deportation to a country where he has absolutely no connections.

In order to come up with the lawyer's fee, Antonio falls into his old habits with his gang, stealing motorcycles. He also struggles with abandonment issues, both his biological Korean mother who still haunts his dreams and his adaptive parents who abused him.

Chon, best known for his role as Eric in Twilight Saga, has a simmering charisma and authenticity, playing a simple man trying to go straight while down on his luck. His uncluttered, energetic directing style and great handling emotional complexities and nuances are also commendable. Also notable is the conscious casting of non-American actors for the roles: Vikander, a Swedish actress who lends her talents playing a down and out Southern girl who would fight till the end for her man, O'Brien, a Canadian actor, is also excellent playing a Louisiana cop who later realizes that what constitutes a family is nothing but biological and Pham, a French actress whose tender portrayal of a woman dying of cancer, who shares affinity with Antonio as a person of color living in the US. This casting is emblematic in showing what a great patchwork America really is.

Shot in 16mm, verité style, lush Louisiana setting and numerous magic hours scenes, Chon and his frequent collaborator DP Ante Cheng (shot two previous Chon's films: Gook and Ms. Purple), along with Matthew Chuang, create intimate portrayal in the American South in Blue Bayou.

As the tearful third act plays out Chon succeeds in shedding light on the inhumane practices of American immigration system and giving audiences plenty to mull over what it means to be an American.

Blue Bayou opens in theaters on 9/17. For more info, please visit Focus Features website.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

War Trauma in a Box

Reflection (2021) - Vasyanovych Screen Shot 2021-09-13 at 10.36.22 AM Call it a silver lining in the midst of unrelenting global pandemic, that we are blessed with not one but two Valentyn Vasyanovych's films this year. Atlantis, after winning Orizzonti (Best Film) at Berlinale 2019 and being included in the late edition of New Directors/New Films in 2020, the film saw a brief streaming release through New York's Metrograph early this year. With his new film Reflection, having a world Premiere at Venice just now, we get to witness the major new voice in the world cinema emerging. Mark my word: Vasyanovych is a real deal. He will be regarded as a new master with the release of his each new film in the future. His almost surrealist formalist approach to filmmaking is akin to the works of Swedish master Roy Andersson sans humor combined with the gravitas and emotional punch of Andrey Zvyagintsev. Reflection, a sort of companion piece to Atlantis, is a truly impactful and impressive filmmaking.

Just like Atlantis, Reflection is only composed of wide, static long takes - the camera only moves when necessary with no cutaways or coverage. There are about 27 shots all together in its two-hour running time. We do not see close ups of actors faces, unless they come closer to the camera. The depth and isolation of its characters, without many words uttered, are all told visually.

The film starts with an absurd scene: Serhiy (Roman Lutskyi), a surgeon, is meeting up with his ex-wife Olha (Nadiya Levchenko) and their teenage daughter Polina (Nika Myslytska) and Olha's new beau, Andriy (Andriy Rymaruk of Atlantis), a soldier, in what seems to be a large industrial indoor playpen. But Polina is suiting up in white HAZMAT suit before disappearing behind the giant glass window. It turns out that playpen is a large indoor paintball court. The teenagers in groups are shooting paintballs at each other while parents outside watch them while talking about the war in Donbas, the south-eastern Ukraine, as the glass window is slowly but surely adorned with bubblegum colored paintball shots. The year is 2014, at the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War.

The next scene is Serhiy in the hospital operating table tending to the badly wounded soldier coming from the front line. But it is too late. He bled out.

The film is divided in two: the war and its aftermath. Serhiy voluntarily joins the war effort, then being captured and tortured by Russian troops. Since he is a surgeon, deemed by Russians to be useful, he is spared and given an assisting role in checking and determining if the tortured Ukraine captives are dying or not. There he encounters Andriy, who is almost dead after a power drill torture session.

The power lies in its long takes and imposing compositions. Vasyanovych possesses an impressive eye for architecture and symmetry, In Atlantis, it was industrial wasteland and outdoor scenes that were the main draw. In Reflection, its oppressive, bunker like industrial indoor spaces the director/cinematographer utilizes for creating dread - whether it's the hospital operating table, torture chamber, portable furnace Russians use to cremate their victims and a pigeon crashing into a high-rise apartment window.

The first half, showing horror of war is relentlessly bleak and dark. The second half concerns Serhiy, thoroughly traumatized by the war experience, trying to get a grip on life where everything is pretty normal. Andriy is regarded as missing in action where no one can find his body; guilt stricken Serhiy has to deal with Olha and Polina. Polina, being a teenager and affected by Andriy's absence, become distant and withdrawn while Serhiy tries to overcompensate it with gifts and horseback riding lessons.

If Atlantis was dealing with fictional scenario of the future ecological devastation and human toll from the prolonged war, Reflection using gray landscapes and claustrophobic interiors, delves into the psychological damage of on-going conflict and threat from the neighboring ominous superpower. Sly metaphors, like dead pigeon, makeshift pyre, ravenous stray dogs are all present. But as with Atlantis, there is a glimmer of hope in Reflection. This time, it's not the love between a man and a woman, but that of father and daughter. Known to use non-actors in his films, Vasyanovych uses his own daughter to play Polina. She in turn, gives a great performance in long takes, engaging in religious and spiritual discussion with Lutskyi who plays her father. Her innocence shines through in a dreadful industrial, monochrome winter Ukraine landscape. Daring in its cinematic language, and unflinching in its presentation of the present, Reflection makes you impossible to ignore the state of the on-going conflict in that part of the world.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Artful, Spiritual Anthropological Survey from Ethiopia

Faya Dayi (2021) - Beshir

Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 8.42.41 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 8.54.16 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 8.57.57 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.01.51 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.04.43 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.06.43 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.22.25 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.23.08 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.23.31 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 9.48.38 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 10.04.39 AM Screen Shot 2021-08-28 at 10.17.00 AM Could an anthropological study of the effects of khat, a flowering plant that has euphoric property when chewed, in Hararar, the walled city in Ethiopia, also be a stunning art film? Mexican-Ethiopian director Jessica Beshir proves that it can, with Faya Dayi, her mesmeric, immersive patchwork, shot mostly in silvery black & white. In here, every one of its hazy frame is a work of art. The film is visualized version of the phrase of a mystical sage or a lofty philosopher - Life is nothing but a waking dream. 

Along with dreamy images and scattered narrations, Beshir languidly builds upon the creation myth of khat, which involves the quest for Maoul Hayat, the water of eternal life. It seems every adult chews khat in Ethiopia, to get away, to escape harsh reality. For the younger generations though, for their future, they dream of fleeing to Europe, to Middle East, to other countries, even if it means risking their lives in an often perilous and costly journey and enduring lifetime of solitude and homesickness in a foreign land. 

There is a loose narrative, which concerns a young boy named Mohammad. He is a thin thread connecting the filmmaker's intergenerational observations. Mohammad is first seen with an older boy who fled the dreadful khat dominated life (to Egypt) only to come back to take care of his mother. For Mohammad, living with an abusive khat addicted father and missing his mother who fled to Saudi Arabia for better life, Hararar doesn't hold a future for him.

We see the full picture of the local economy based on khat, from its harvest to processing to distribution to consumption. And it's a long grueling process all done manually. It’s the industry’s berth, employing vast section of the country’s labor market that is truly astounding.

We are introduced to many of Hararar's inhabitants - there are women pining for lost love, a young man thrown into the khat industry because of the family tragedy that has befallen, the local sheiks with their prayer beads and scriptures, young naked children playing in ever receding ankle deep river. There's also a talk of street demonstrations and political prisoners among Oromo people, an oppressed ethnic minority trying to get by under the hostile Ethiopian regime. 

Beauty is in the shadows and silhouettes. It's in billowing curtains and in smoke of the ceremonial incense, in a group of black birds perched precariously on the tree branches on a windy night, in the water ripples, in the blackness of a woman's hijab against the white wall, in sleeping stray dogs, in cheap strobing lights on Mohammed's face, even in newly harvested shiny khat leaves. 

Khat as the myth goes, was a compensatory prize from god, for the journeyman who missed out on Maoul Hayat, to forget his sorrows. 

Dry anthropological documentaries are dime a dozen. Bashir in her debut film, with immersive and stunning visuals, achieves something extraordinary here. Faya Dayi transcends its filmic categories and achieves a deeply spiritual and contemplative viewing experience.