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.