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Among the numerous delights of attending festivals is catching an early screening of a film already steeped in praise (whether hailing from Sundance, Cannes, Toronto or Venice). As I discovered with last year’s output of highly anticipated festival entries, this kind of acclaim proved either premature (Birth of a Nation) or prophetic (Manchester by the Sea). The occasion of seeing both before wider exposure allowed me to be a little more objective about seeing films often labelled as top festival attractions. Oftentimes these films disappointed as much as they impressed, helping me see that equally worthy of attention were the festivals’ screening of lesser known independent films, ones without a huge audience or pre-Oscar season publicity backing it, but ones equally (if not more) capable of delivering inimitable cinematic experiences.
With that, I was firmly enthusiastic going into A Yangtze Landscape, Chinese documentarian Xu Xin’s non-narrative about Asia’s longest river and everything it encapsulated about his nation (culturally, economically and spiritually). Right now, it seems the most prosperous works in Chinese cinema seem fully centered on China’s economic boom and cultural decline—the subject has been fierily depicted in the nation’s big studio releases (The Mermaid) as well as its smaller independent films (‘Til Madness Do Us Part).
Given the standard already set by Chinese cinema my expectations coming into A Yangtze Landscape were reasonably high, but by the time the credits rolled I felt more disappointed than anything. A bad movie is easily brushed off but with A Yangtze Landscape it was the feeling of unfulfilled potential that lingered.
Picture this, extreme wide shots of the Yangtze and its surrounding landscapes, among which include vast panoramas of industrial waste sites, cityscapes, endless poverty and rural territory all shot in stunning argentate black-and-white. Now imagine these amazing images formatted into a monotonous, two-hour and 40-minute demo-reel. Given the right handiwork the images in Xu Xin’s river odyssey A Yangtze Landscape carried potential to be a work of expressive and critical power, using the Yangtze as a natural cross-section of Chinese society. Contrasting rich and poor, rural and urban, ancient and modern, the Yangtze is in and of itself a powerful emblem of Chinese culture even outside of cinema’s touch.
Xin never combines the disparate image of the river, its surrounding land and inhabitants, to form a meaningful whole. His film feels more driven by a technician’s preciseness than an artist’s vision, making the whole ordeal feel as cold, colorless and lifeless as the world it depicts.
Occasionally Xin will accompany his images of the Yangtze with brief texts containing anecdotes of the river’s history. The anecdotes don’t conjure anything more than vague trivial interest but, then again, neither do his images. He seems less interested in the subject he’s filming than the filming itself, which is why sequences lasting 5-10 minutes spent in one place seem excessive when bereft of context. He experiments with contrasts, long takes and blocking, sometimes with hypnotic and obsessive detail, but in the process only proves to be a filmmaker determined in all the wrong ways. Ultimately, Xin shows more promise in stills than cinema, non-narrative or otherwise. (Rating: 3/10)
Travelling eastward from the Yangtze (or should say west?) I was pleased to discover Hong Sang-soo’s Claire’s Camera, a South Korean drama taking place in France’s Cannes amid the coastal town’s festival flurry. Hong, South Korea’s premier independent filmmaker, has been forwarding a push in South Korean avant-garde for years, and with Claire’s Camera the distinguished cineaste proves to be just as capable in delighting with his formal quirks as challenging with them.
The film follows several characters (among them a French woman, a South Korean film director and a woman recently fired from his production crew) who—often by chance—meet and engage in brief but deeply engaged conversation. At 69 minutes Claire’s Camera is spare but, under Hong’s direction, stunningly precise. It’s often small details that shape Hong’s films and in the case of Claire’s Camera, it’s the careful examination of strange isolated encounters, painted to seem graceful and trifling, that often reveal his dark and messy emotional undercurrents.
Swapping out the pining, lovelorn director as his primary focus for a lonely, dispossessed woman, Hong can’t quite capture the internalization that made his 2014 film Right Now, Wrong Then such a visceral and complex personal (and appropriately narcissistic) vision.
With that said, Hong is still among cinema’s most resourceful directors working today, his ability to train his eye on any given location, no matter how mundane or uninteresting, and create an evocative atmosphere of intense—but understated—emotion between characters never fails to floor me. Claire’s Camera, with its brief run-time and unassuming appearance, will be an easy one for most festival goers to forget as they bustle from one film to the next, but among the festival’s hotbed of flashy new talent is one of South Korea’s most modestly skilled and long established filmmakers; a self-effacing master hiding in plain sight. (Rating: 7/10)
On the topic of resourceful filmmakers, and new talent, I’m urged to talk about Maison du bonheur, which, if not the best, is certainly the most entrancing documentary of the year. A combination of slice of life and Eurocentric nouveau réalisme, Maison du bonheur provides an encouraging new direction for Canadian outsider art not bound by the studio system. Expressive, principled and sometimes spontaneous Sofia Bohdanowicz crafts a vision entirely her own and, at the same time, self-denying as she observes the day-to-day life of 77-year-old Parisian astrologer, Julianne Sellam.
Suggested by a colleague to make a film about her mother, Bohdanowicz (obviously persuaded) travels to the Montmarte quartier of Paris with 30 rolls of 16 mm film and a Bolex camera to meet with the 77-year-old inside her prewar Paris apartment. Limited to 30 rolls of film Bohdanowicz decides to make her 62-minute feature into 30 segments, a potentially crippling limitation that proves to be a most appropriate framing device. The documentary, comprised of disembodied voices of Sellam accompanying interior shots of her Paris apartment, is not an abridged account of the 77-year-old’s day-to-day life but a selection of its most cherished fragments.
Filmed in a passé-style 16 mm, the choice of a vintage-look for the documentary seems to be an entirely conscious one, not exactly historical or present-day, Bohdanowicz’s documentary captures—through memory, tradition and preservation—a present shaped entirely by one’s past.
Maison du bonheur was screened as part of a selection of other Canadian arthouses, under the “True North” heading, films selectively chosen to lead the charge of Canada’s emerging independent cinema which, thus far, have seemed dormant for the past decade. Although totally inexplicable, even among her contemporaries, Sofia Bohdanowicz and her sublime second feature is reason enough to start bragging about Canadian cinema again. (Rating: 8/10)