The Vancouver International Film Festival comes more than half-a-year after Sundance, months after Cannes, and mere days after Toronto International Film Festival which is good news for us film-dependents in the Pacific Northwest. Living in this corner of the globe it’s easy to feel cut off from the rest of the world “movie-wise” with major film festivals introducing and reintroducing some of the best films and filmmakers the world stage has to offer, luckily for us VIFF provides the region with its own season for film-goers (think of it as Western Canada’s answer to Chicago and New York’s yearly festivals), with the dedicated and talented programmers make it their business to bridge are coastal region to the invigorating free market of international cinema.
This a place we may as well call the “Twilight Zone,” as it seems to exist outside the world of movies most monthly and yearly cinema goers are attuned to—a place free of the expectations that seem to spoil major releases, film budgets are not indicative of a movie’s quality, and box office anxiety completely non-existent. Most of the films shown at VIFF can’t be framed or categorized in such a way as to meet the expectations of a demographic or target audience. Rather these films pose a stark challenge to those expectations, with searing worldviews that tend to provoke, inflame and shake the emotions that studio products would rather tame, their goal purely to satisfy emotional expectations in a way to keep us in their grasp.
Among the films that seem to break us free of the litany of painfully fabricated emotion is the Japanese film Asako I & II (Rating: 9/10), a work which I found, for all its obvious contrivances, the ingenuity behind its strange dramatic devices makes this one the most authentic emotional experience I’ve had in the cinemas this year. Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s part-romance, part-tragicomedy was released in the festival under its Gateway stream (a program highlighting the works of East Asian cinema). It was among my most anticipated films of festival, being one of the few selected to compete in Cannes’s Palm d’Or lineup.
Unfortunately, Hamaguchi lost the prestigious award to compatriot Hirokazu Koreeda. Undoubtedly, Hamaguchi could not have made a film that would please as unanimously as Koreeda’s tearjerker cum social critique. Where Shoplifters’ tale of a makeshift family in Tokyo’s slums aims directly for the sympathetic nerve, Hamaguchi’s absurdist tale of a woman caught between two loves devises a scenario that interrogates our sympathies to the characters.
Hamaguchi’s story unfolds over the course of seven years starting with a star-crossed romance between the timidly moon-eyed Asako and the carefree-but-shallow Baku (played by the radiant Masahiro Higashide and Erika Karata), a romance that ends abruptly with boyfriend Baku’s disappearance. Baku’s absence leaves Asako in an emotional stasis, that is, until she meets Ryohei (also played by Higashide), a young careerist whose resemblance to former flame Baku makes the lovelorn girl apprehensive of her true feelings. In the end, Ryohei’s understated charm and awkward-yet-unsparing devotion win Asako over.
Although Asako I & II seems to be shaped by moments of coincidence and the spontaneous, Hamaguchi’s stunningly sinuous story, involving disaster and revelation, moves in subtle rhythms that reveal a sublime, heartbreaking design. The gracefully poetic narrative suggesting that the current of time is tantamount to the current of emotion, that both move mysteriously, agonizingly out of our control.
Completely switching gears is the screening I caught right after, Isabella Eklöf’s Holiday (Rating: 5/10), an unnervingly bleak and formally rigid exploration of a young Danish woman ensnared in a transactional relationship with a wealthier older man with less-than-subtle ties to organized crime. The film opens with a booming industrial rock anthem and a woman—down on all fours—dancing ferally projected against a black backdrop. It’s a key image to understanding Eklöf’s film: Subverting the male gaze, the woman’s animal and ferocious movements don’t portray a typical object of desire but instead gleefully reflects our own carnal impulses.
The story is of a young trophy girlfriend Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) who, while on holiday with her mafioso boyfriend Michael (Lai Yde) in a beautiful Turkish port city is wooed by hunky Dutch sailor Thomas (Thijs Römer). This isn’t your love triangle of classic literary tradition, however. Isabelle Eklöf’s moral vacuum of gangsters and lovers pits the characters in a world where compulsion and urge govern desire rather than the gradual development of emotion and connection.
Alas, Eklöf lacks a human touch that should’ve lifted her impressive formal habits from merely cold precision. The film’s story, in which Sascha is persistently abused physically, emotionally and sexually to which she is forced to vie for the cheapest and most accessible forms of affection suggests a tragedy. Yet, the film suppresses it, invoking a more cynical, misanthropic curiosity to Sascha’s emotional trials.
This lack of human touch in Holiday is countered by the entirely human-touched vlog doc In My Room (Rating: 5/10) by Israeli filmmaker Ayelet Albenda, who assembles a collection of YouTube diaries for her film; among her subjects is a British teen with an eating disorder, teen pregnancy, a male makeup artist and a young transgender individual going through the process of hormonal therapy. They are framed affectionately and respectfully by Ayelet Albenda as she journeys through their struggles with identity and insecurity, employing slick editing rhymes and patterns to gracefully unify their struggles. Ultimately, however, Albenda’s choice to frame them in such a spare, fleeting manner ignores the inherent superficiality of the vlog, a tool that manipulates and cheapens self-image more than it personifies—a topic dealt with far more considerately in 2018’s Eighth Grade.
Where In My Room lacks the contemplation to see past what was simply in front of the camera, no film in 2018 thus far seems to understand the depth in front of and beyond the camera lens than Andrea Bussmann’s spellbinding non-narrative Fausto (Rating: 7/10). An indirect adaptation of the classic German legend, this variation is set on an idyllic, beautiful Oaxacan coastline, a Central American paradise that teems with culture, natural beauty, and the unknown. The film assumes an almost documentary-like nature, interviewing subjects and surveying the region’s dense ethnography, but its emphasis on the folk tales and legend keep the film’s complex structure hovering just out of the realms of reality.
The nightlife of the Oaxacan coastline region takes on a whole other level of meaning and experience in Andrea Bussmann’s Fausto. The familiar sights of the region become enshrouded in darkness, leaving the knowledge of what’s lying just before our eyes painfully out of our grasp. At which point her film becomes a sublime odyssey into how we fill that darkness—myth, legend, and folktale ultimately help fill the void. Her camera often probes the region’s landscapes with insights into the region’s ecology and geography but come nightfall it’s the storytellers, pitted around dimly-lit campfires, who become the primary source looking at the world, a tiny flickering light amidst a vast plane of darkness.