Sunday, March 25, 2012

Fribourg International Film Festival - Day I Report

Ongoing reports on the 26th Fribourg International Film Festival which Modern Korean Cinema will be covering all week.

11 Flowers
(China; 2011)

Dir:  Wang Xiaoshuai

My first film of the festival was one of the twelve contenders for the main prize, known as 'Le Regard d’Or', which has previously been awarded to films like Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000), Eric Khoo’s My Magic (2008) and most recently Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (2010).  11 Flowers is the latest film from Wang Xiaoshuai, a successful Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker who is well know for Beijing Bicycle (2001).

A coming of age tale set at the end of the cultural revolution, Xiaoshuai’s latest work is the product of a fertile mind and an experienced director’s touch.  The film follows the 11-year-old Wang Han who is asked to lead his school in the morning gymnastics' class.  He needs a new shirt for the position and his mother, who works at the local factory eventually capitulates to his sulking, using a year’s worth of fabric rations in the process.  He eventually loses the prized shirt when a killer swipes it from him as he tries to evade the police.

The film is exquisite in its design and though the premise starts off slight, the local society is soon vividly brought to life.  Wang Han’s shirt and the despair of a neighbouring family are set against the backdrop of the impending revolts in contemporaneous China.  Wang Han is forced to grow up very quickly in the climate of tumult and change and the driving force of his loss of innocence is his gaze, steadily corrupted by each new event he witnesses.

The stunning and evocative cinematography is all the more potent as it succeeds in drawing attention away from itself.  At times I was reminded of Emmanuelle Lubezki’s work on recent Terence Malick films, though the lensing here is nowhere near as ostentatious.  A great start to the festival and already a strong contender for the FIFF’s top prize.

Histórias Que Só Existem Quando Lembradas
(France, Brazil, Argentina; 2011)

Dir:  Júlia Murat

I had heard great things about Historias prior to this screening and I was excited as I sat down.  It must be said however, that at first it was a frustrating experience.  The quality of the print might have been to blame as the picture quality was often blurry and jarring, especially during long shots and my eyes had trouble focussing. 

The film follows an elderly woman as she goes about her daily routine in an extremely remote part of Argentina.  She is part of a minuscule community, similarly composed of seniors.  The early stages of the film are built around very long takes and languid repetition as we are introduced to the invariance of her daily life.  There was a slight vein of droll humour but I was having trouble settling into the experience.

A young female backpacker and amateur photographer arrives and asks for a place to stay for a few days.  The woman gives her a room but she and the rest of the insular community treat her with mistrust.  At this stage this is how I felt as I viewer, as though the filmmaker wasn’t letting me into his quaint and carefully structured world.

When the inhabitants of the village finally warm to the girl the film magnificently opened itself up to me.   Actions that had been repeated throughout the film became intimate as the camera gradually came closer to its subjects.  What at first were formal tableaus seen from a distance became warm pictures of humanity.  The camera beckoned us to breathe in this community that time had forgotten.

The young girl acts as a surrogate for the viewer but is also a fascinating character in her own right.  She revels in old techniques of photography, listens to music from a bygone era and professes that she was born at the wrong time.  But it is also clear that this statement is a little naïve as she is the image of a contemporary cosmopolitan girl, complete with the trappings of modern day such as her iPod.  While she quickly feels at home in the village when its residents accept her she is also a strong female character with a progressive view on gender roles, which puts her at odds with the close-knit patriarchal society.

Her voyage of self-discovery becomes our own as the filmmaker dares us to question our role in today’s world and how we relate to it.  Historias is not a film that will get wide exposure but if you do happen across it, it is not to be missed!

(Switzerland, France, Germany, Burkina Faso, United Kingdom; 1990)

Dir:  Idrissa Ouedraogo

A film made in Burkina Faso and funded by a cotery of European cultural institutions, Tilai is an odd beast.  It is set in tribal communities and stars actors who seem to have been pulled straight out of that world.  While the production values are not very high there is a surprising amount of craft invested in the effort and everything flows along remarkably well.  The strange thing is just how focussed and straight-forward it is.  I don’t known if I’ve ever come across a film that was so matter-of-fact in relation to its plot, characters and dialogue, which is so blunt that it is often quite comical.  My question is whether the deliberate style and brevity of the production was meant to be ironic or if it was an attempt to incorporate very clear storytelling.

The virile protagonist has just returned to his tribe after a two-year absence, announcing his arrival with a horn on top of a hill.  He expects his woman to be waiting for him and for them to get married.  She had been promised to him and as luck would have they are in love.  But his brother, upon greeting him, informs him that she is now wed to their father, making her their mother.  He is furious and immediately chooses exile over confronting his father.  The lovers story doesn’t end here as they henceforth employ subterfuge to steal precious moments together but it is not long before they are found out.

The story bristles along at a steady clip and the benefit of the film’s clarity is just how easy it is to follow along but the downside is that beyond the simple narrative and the obvious reference to some ridiculously outdated patriarchal tribal codes, the film has little else to offer.  At 84 minutes, Tilai does go by in a flash and though the story is familiar (almost streamlined Shakespearean) and not particularly original, the unfamiliar setting that is richly brought to life make this a worthwhile venture.  However, as it is a Central African film from 22 years ago, I daresay it may be hard to get you hands on it.

(Argentina, Chile; 2011)

Dir:  Diego Rougier

The official opening film of the festival, Salt was preceded by an almost interminable series of windy speeches from local politicians praising the festival’s focus on diversity and its continued success in the region.  It must be said that is wasn’t all bad but since most of it had to be translated into two (French, German) and sometimes three languages (with English thrown into the mix), it did drag on a bit.  This says nothing of the frankly bizarre musical act that linked each podium grandstand.

The programmer of the festival, Thierry Jobin, an affable and enthusiastic cinephile explained how Salt came to the festival’s office in a DVD slipcase which references Sergio Leone’s seminal western Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).  There is a whole section at the festival titled 'Once Upon a Time In the South' that will present how the genre has stretched far beyond its habitual North American stomping ground.  Salt, set in the deserts of Northern Chile, is the progeny of a self-ascribed obsessive of westerns and it shows.

A Spanish filmmaker named Sergio is trying to get his western made but everyone is turning him down, pointing out that he hasn’t had the experience to write such a project and that he clearly doesn’t know the area where he wants to film it, the North Chilean desert, said to be the driest in the world.  He then goes on location to acquire inspiration and said experience.  He is immediately mistaken for a man called Diego and he finds himself sucked into a narrative that provides him with much more experience than he bargained for.

Homage is key to the film and the names of characters and many of the actions and scenes are borrowed from famed western works and filmmakers.  It is all very enjoyable and it builds to a crescendo as our central protagonist gets sucked into this world but it’s also a little thin as it can come off as pastiche rather than successfully integrated elements that add to an original work.  At the end of the day, despite its ingenious appropriation of genre tropes and blistering enthusiasm, Salt is still an homage from a filmlover to his favorite genre rather than an addition to it that stands on its own.  Worth a watch but there isn’t much to walk away with.

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