After the official fall film launch of the Venice/Telluride/Toronto triumvirate, the first significant American fest is the New York Film Festival. But due to the quirks of international film festival branding, another event that plays out during roughly the same period offers many of the films showcased in New York as well as a great variety of additional international films. While New York provides the American launches of Jean-Luc Godard‘s Goodbye to Language, David Cronenberg‘s Maps to the Stars, Olivier Assayas‘ Clouds of Sils Maria, the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night and Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (among many others) to great media attention, Vancouver quietly screens them across the country almost simultaneously, hot off their respective World or North American debuts at Toronto. For folks on the West Coast, the Vancouver International Film Festival is not just a great alternative to see these and other films, it’s an easier festival to navigate and an affordable festival to play in. Plus, if you have a particular interest in Asian cinema, it’s the place to find films from those directors yet to be anointed and celebrated in the anchor festivals around the world.
Opening night was set aside for a Canadian filmmaker continuing his Hollywood success story. Wild, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir by novelist Nick Hornby (who also scripted An Education), is more than a vehicle for its star/producer Reese Witherspoon. It’s an odyssey on a human scale: a hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1700 mile journey undertaken without any preparation or training. For Sheryl, pulling herself out of depression and a self-destructive detour into drugs, it’s an American walkabout cleansing by way of a dare, though the only person she has to prove anything to is herself. As he did in Dallas Buyer’s Club, Vallée favors the texture of her experience over her story and DP Yves Bélanger keep us rooted in the beauty and the isolation of the landscape. Hornby’s adaptation is remarkably empathetic to her ordeal, moreso on the trail than in the flashbacks of her spiral into self-destruction (where Laura Dern gives a sublime, award-worthy performance as her mother), and it keeps her voice front and center. And while there is a conventional backbone to the story, it keeps us rooted in the experience of a single woman taking on a challenge that some veteran hikers fail to complete, never forgetting the vulnerability of doing alone. When a couple of teenage boys rib her about the “princess” treatment she gets from a park ranger (who clearly just wants to get into her tent), she doesn’t school them or remind the audience of some of the more threatening moments she’s endured. She just gets back on the trail and focuses on what matters: moving on.
Dragons and Tigers still thrives as a defining section of the festival but the Dragons and Tigers competition, the longtime festival showcase for young filmmakers from Asia, is gone this year. In its place is a new young filmmaker’s award with a few Dragons and Tigers films included in the line-up. Exit (Taiwan), the second film from Chienn Hsiang, made its North American debut at VIFF after winning a couple of awards at Tapei and screening in Locarno. Chen Shiang-chyi is heartbreaking as a single mother who has been all but abandoned by family and society and finds her only human connection in the anonymous ministrations to an unconscious man a hospital bed next to her mother (who is recovering from surgery). There’s nothing untoward in any of it (at least not that we see) but it is terribly intimate as she strokes his beaded skin with a cool, damp cloth to calm his unconscious cries and writhing body. It’s almost as if she’s the mother of a helpless newborn, at least as long as the man is unconscious. Otherwise she is slowly disappearing into the crowds, another person left behind in a failing economy and an impersonal society, and her depression and anxiety—and increasing sense of helplessness—is palpable.
Man on High Heels (South Korea) is a classic Korean urban crime thriller with a decidedly unconventional angle. Joon (Cha Seung-won), the toughest cop on the force, wears the record off his violent life as a maverick loner cop on his body, which is covered in scars and held together by steel pins. While that marks him as the squad badass, he sees himself quite differently: as a woman. None of his fellow detectives have any idea he’s retiring so he can undergo sex reassignment surgery. Writer / director Jang Jin makes the most of this seeming contradiction: the detective who acts like a classic martial arts movie hero in the underworld, eschewing guns and knives as he takes on gangster thugs (which gives the movie its entertaining if familiar action sequences). There’s a dry humor that helps take the edge off the arch and ultra-serious Joon (who is non-communicative almost to the point of parody) but despite the IMDb genre listing, this is no comedy. Joon’s violence seems to spring from his frustration at hiding his true self from his co-workers. Every arrest becomes a showdown, a contest in which he tests himself again and again, perhaps just to prove to himself that he’s still alive. But it’s not the rush of the fight that he’s chasing, it’s the calm that comes over him when he dons a dress and makes up his face and sees the beautiful woman looking back at him in the mirror. Unfortunately, Jin doesn’t see Korea as a particularly accepting culture for Joon’s self-actualization. In narrative terms that usually mean some kind of sacrifice, but give Jin credit for an unexpectedly ambivalent and complex twist to the convention.
Two Iranian films stand out because they offer something we haven’t seen in a while: young voices telling stories of young people with a style drawn from western influences rather than the arthouse impressionism and poetic realism of Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and others from the now old guard of New Iranian Cinema.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Iran), written and directed by California-based filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour, is a vampire movie from a female director who stirs American movie references into her stylized Iranian drama. The Girl (as she is identified in the credits), played by Sheila Vand (Argo), walks the streets (and at one point rides a purloined skateboard) of the fictional Bad City modestly and properly covered in a chador, but underneath she wears a striped blouse that could have been borrowed from Jean Seberg in Breathless and her basement room is adorned in pop music posters. Arash (Arash Marandi) seems to model himself on James Dean, right down to the white T-shirt, black leather jacket and blue jeans. Of course they cross paths and The Girl, who exercises a measure of morality in choosing her meals, allows him to woo her. Why not? They’ve both already robbed the same gangster (she took jewelry and his CDs, he grabbed the cash and the drugs). Yes, Bad City is a bad place and the film, shot in high-contrast black-and-white widescreen almost entirely at night, is like an Iranian film noir by way of a crime drama with supernatural edges. Amirpour fills the screen with a sense of emptiness and ominousness: a stripped-away landscape, devoid of bystanders (giving it a ghost town atmosphere) and prowled by predators, criminals, hookers and other society drop-outs. It was produced in the United States, with night-shrouded California locations transformed into the suburbs and industrial outskirts of an Iranian town amid a cast speaking Farsi, and it was financed in a decidedly American manner: production funds were raised in an IndieGoGo campaign. This is a film that justifies that model. It won’t get a release in Iran, at least in current form (thanks to brief nudity), and it may be too idiosyncratic for an American theatrical release, but after a healthy festival run, it should find its way to audiences through other means.
Fish & Cat (Iran) has its own high concept hook: it’s a feature shot in a single long take running over two hours. Not a virtual long take stitched together with digital tools, mind you, but a continuous handheld shot that travels for over two hours. That’s an impressive technical achievement but what makes it so interesting is how Shahram Mokri (making his feature filmmaking debut) keeps looping the film back on itself, replaying sequences and veering off into new side stories before looping back again. That ingenuity keeps us focused even when the meandering dialogue loses steam. Ostensibly inspired by the real-life story of cooks at a Northern Iran restaurant sent to prison for serving human meat in 1998, it opens on some rather shady characters at a shack of a restaurant before carrying us to a lakeside campsite with young adults gathered for a winter solstice kite festival. Don’t expect a horror film, at least not in the conventional sense. Mokri seems more concerned with storytelling than telling a story. The characters are interesting without ever really engaging us or going anywhere and the vignettes wear thin after more than two hours of conversations. But the slices of life on view, the easy relationships of friends and strained meetings of former lovers, gives us a perspective on Iranian life rarely seen in other films, while the older men on the edges of the story bring an ominous sense of threat: the old guard waiting to prey on the young? After all the ominous rumblings of violence in the wings, the final act delivers with sadness and loss rather than spectacle. In its own way, the final scene sends the film looping back once again, this time to stories told in previous scenes.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Japan), directed by Studio Ghibli co-founder and Grave of the Fireflies filmmaker Isao Takahata, takes an artisanal approach to animation. It’s a tenth-century fairy tale of a magical princess who is born of a bamboo stalk and, raised by a modest old woodcutter and his wife, sprouts to adulthood just as fast as one. As the bamboo grove gives forth with fine clothes and the riches of a royal, her adoptive father takes her from her natural paradise to a palace in the city where she grudgingly masters the arts and social graces of titled society. Takahata embraces the sketchy, impressionistic, painterly qualities of animation being displaced by CGI. His hand-drawn imagery evokes both the style of watercolor and ink artworks on ancient Japanese parchment and the charcoal and pastel quality of certain storybook illustrations and Joe Hisaishi‘s score has a lyrical simplicity to match. Takahata takes time to play out his ancient fairy tale, getting sidetracked in entertaining yet ultimately inconsequential tales of royal suitors attempting to win the princess. It’s strongest when he celebrates the simple pleasures of her life, working in a modest garden set off from the palace, running through the forest, entranced by the cherry blossoms of the young spring. And the final act is heartbreakingly lovely, a magical spectacle that whisks us flying through the air with a thrilling rush. With the announcement that Studio Ghibli will cease operations as an active producer of animated features (it will continue to license properties and handle the catalog), The Tale of Princess Kaguya feels like a final gift, a handmade storybook of a film from a filmmaker who is as entranced with the texture of a brushstroke as with character and story.
VIFF 2014 continues through Friday, October 10. Other NYFF films screening at VIFF this year include Lisandro Alonso‘s Jauja, Pedro Costa‘s Horse Money, Bruno Dumont‘s Li’l Quinquin, Eugène Green’s La Sapienza, Hong Sang-soo‘s Hill of Freedom, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, Alex Ross Perry‘s Listen Up Philip, Matías Piñeiro’s The Princess of France, Martín Rejtman’s Two Shots Fired, Alain Resnais’s Life of Riley, Alice Rohrwacher’s Cannes-winning The Wonders, Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What, Gabe Polsky’s Red Army, and Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery, of which you can read more at David Hudson’s NYFF 2014 index. You can’t see all of New York’s line-up at VIFF, but that’s a substantial collection. VIFF closes with the Sundance hit Whiplash.