One inevitably recurring theme in the many films you get see at festivals like VIFF is how the world isn’t going to give you the answers to life’s hard questions. It is often that the filmmakers must make meaning of these questions, to bypass the world’s indifference to our suffering. Alas, no film at the festival has made me more aware of the world’s indifference than Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still (Rating: 8/10). Already having screened at Berlinale, TIFF, Hong Kong, Locarno and multiple other international festivals, Hu Bo’s new film has become a topic of interest because almost exactly a year ago as of writing this (October 12th, 2017) the filmmaker committed suicide at the age of 29.
It is not clear whether An Elephant Sitting Still is more illuminating in light of Bo’s suicide or vice versa, but whatever the case the director’s first (and final) feature remains a work of a rare pervasiveness. This massive 230-minute feature—following the lives of four anguished tenants of a rundown north Chinese apartment complex—is as remorselessly bleak as it is inexplicably transfixing as it looks at the state of relentless torment and unsuppressed rage exists between the age, gender and class divisions in the film’s hopelessly fragmented community.
Hu Bo probes an abyss of endless despair, within it he finds an impenetrable beauty in our ability to withstand the unremitting brutality we inherit by simply existing. The elephant of its title never appears in the film’s four-hour runtime, but its presence proves a remarkably felt one. Sitting in its zoo all day, despite everything, it becomes that mythic constant between the different stories of ruthless cruelty, the endurance of the soul that Hu Bo seemed to both admire and dread.
Perhaps it would be an inappropriate move to follow-up on An Elephant Sitting Still’s unceasing austerity with an appreciation of Mangoshake’s (Rating: 6/10) unconditional lightness of being. It’s hard not to immediately fall for the boneheaded antics of Terry Chiu’s layabouts whose answers to the existential emptiness to life is to open a mangoshake stand in the free market of an unassuming Canadian suburb. I am not ashamed to admit that this type of lo-fi outsider art appeals to every inch of my 20-something sense of aimlessness.
The film, a surrealist comedy of late-summer ennui, consists of a large cast of characters (played by nonprofessional actors) and numerous narrative strands. Chiu unleashes a litany of gags from almost every corner of its smartphone-like graphics. Despite its unabashed low quality, Chiu possesses a real flare for the nuances of visual comedy, an evident stress on the importance of foreground and background action, unnatural symmetricity, relentless dollying camera movements and an enormous emphasis on timing of action give his scenarios a sense of playfulness and creativity which, I guarantee, you will not find in a Hollywood comedy this year.
This breed of absurdism, however, will only appeal to an audience who will truly appreciate the pleasure of surrendering yourself to the most primitive and instinctual of delights, to the point where I couldn’t tell if the film’s brief, peaceful interludes of existential reflection were serious or ironically serious. Despite such gripes, Terry Chiu’s whole world seems to unravel here with extraordinary clarity. The mangoshake stand forms an existential motif for an artist’s sense of purpose, uselessly creative and creatively useless, an innovative response to the void of everyday.
The next film I saw at VIFF may have been made in the same country as Mangoshake but feels like it exists on another plane of reality; Phillipe Lesage’s Genesis (Rating: 6/10) is an emotionally high-risk probe into emotional danger zones of youth. Its two central characters, Guillaume and Charlotte are siblings whose sexual interests exist on other ends of the social spectrum; Guillaume, a closeted gay male in an all-boys school, fights the urge to pronounce his love for a close friend, and Charlotte, a heterosexual young woman, branches out of a crumbling long-term relationship to explore new avenues of pleasure and satisfaction. Neither of their journeys, it turns out, finds a sense of lasting resolve.
The film opens with promise, Guillaume leading his classmates in a chorus show us the intoxicating sense of brotherhood and fellowship that the young man deeply envelopes himself in before that same sense of communion distorts into oppressive conformity. Disappointingly, Lesage’s grip on the material proves too constricting, he certainly knows how to put us into his character’s social environments, but lacks the naturalism to turn introspection into catharsis. Too many moments, as when the young Guillaume wades through several boy-girls locked in intimate slow dance, come off as too deterministically ‘by design’ to achieve the aching loneliness Lesage so obviously wants to convey.
There are moments in Phillipe Lesage film where he evidently loosens his grip and lets his feelings soar—one powerful speech delivered by Guillaume to his classmates that instantly hits its mark. Lesage even manages to conceive that natural eye in an extended denouement which explores budding romance in its embryonic stage (hence the title). It’s a look at the conducts and codes of social circles that dictate our innermost compulsion for affection, portrayed with an utmost attention to the transience of human feeling. Lesage’s look into that crucial stage is a small masterstroke.
Speaking of those tender early stages, I can’t stress enough the importance of fairy tales to our childhood subconscious, if you grew up being read stories by the Brothers Grimm (as I have) or other similar fables like “The Three Little Pigs” then the eerie parallels these stories had with adult psychology become all the more unsettling. Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León direct The Wolf House (Rating: 7/10), a Chilean animated fairy tale, employing some of the most impressive feats of stop-motion this side of Laika, but the two posit something more profoundly unique and expressive than even the American company’s most impressive work.
The story takes elements from the stories of Brothers Grimm and achieves an originality outside of its early-European folk influences. In a mode not too dissimilar to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and his scrutiny of the Franco regime in Spain, The Wolf House too can be read allegorically to illustrate Chilean tyrant Augusto Pinochet’s reign, but more than glib “this represents that” comparison this stop-motion animation intelligently explores the very nature of our relationship to fairy tales.
The story follows that of a girl who, pursued by a wolf, finds refuge in a strange house that changes shape at will. The following narrative path (which I will leave sparingly short) takes on a traditional fable-like form, warning against the follies of childhood disobedience. But as the film really begins to take shape the more dubious and two-faced its fable-like nature becomes. When the girl finds that the household, and those she inherits with it betray her, the fable turns out to be a lie.
The house, in its everchanging nature, becomes the way in which our consciousness grows from levels of blind acceptance of surroundings to flat-out disillusionment. It teaches us not to obey but to remain suspicious of our surroundings, to become ever aware of the different masks evil wears. Like the films before it, The Wolf House may not pose the answers to life’s harsh questions but it’s invaluable in that it encourages our eyes, ears and minds to not to let that which seems trustworthy answer those questions for us.