#NZFF: Bleakfest

(‘Bleakfest’ is the name of a real thing that my friends Amy and James did last year — a night of the bleakest films, screened back to back in a dingy Hataitai flat — but I’m nicking it for this section of my NZ International Film Festival, during which I felt like the Earth was a crusted, burnt-out husk.)

A Touch of Sin | First story | Western-style

I did a strange thing. Instead of just rambling my thoughts about Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin here on Jdanspsa Wyksui, I compressed them into a hopefully coherent form and submitted them to Stuff Nation, the often questionable user-generated content arm of Fairfax’s Stuff.co.nz news website. Here’s an excerpt:

In Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin – one of the more bitter and cynical films I’ve seen in a while – China’s power is concentrated in the hands of an elite few, while the majority of the population is left to pick over the dust in their masters’ wake. […] What happened to the glorious idea of China for these people? Far from being marginalised, they are in the thick of the mainstream. Their aspirations for more money, more power, and more freedom lead them to fight against the current with whatever tools they have available to them – but the flow is always stronger. 

You can read my full review here, which I end by saying that the film is worth seeing. My bitterness and cynicism straight after the screening overrode any attempt to judge the film’s quality, but the more time elapses since I saw it, the better I think it is.

On the other hand, Amat Escalante’s Heli is the absolute bleakest of the bleak, and impossible for me to recommend. Imagine a family of three generations that lives a purely functional life in a shack in Mexico, their lives as parched of emotion as the barren landscape that surrounds them. Then, imagine those lives being wrenched and battered by a mostly accidental run-in with a drug cartel. One reviewer walked out during the central sequence of chilling gang violence: “Life’s too short for that amount of bleak”.

Notes on Heli, Mexican film | Walkout
My notes for ‘Heli’

Heli is the name of the main character, a young man in his early 20s who appears to be the main breadwinner of the household. There’s also his dad, his teen sister, his wife, and his baby daughter. Before the gang comes knocking, he moves from the breakfast table > to his job at a car manufacturing plant > to the dinner table > to bed, without ever cracking a smile. After the shooting and torture, his face remains as flat and emotionless as ever; the only question is what rage he will find in himself, and at whom he will direct it.

The following things are also presented in Heli, with the same passion-free realism as everything else:

  • A teen romance
  • A gynaecological exam
  • Two dog killings
  • A boot standing on a human face
  • 2.5L Coke bottles
  • A sex scene

Heli teenage girl

I’m guessing Escalante’s point was to simply show the plain reality of gang infiltration into Mexican society, and its effects on regular lower-class families. Okay, great: I feel the hopelessness, the flatness, the limit on aspiration. And I don’t plan to see this film ever again.

#NZFF: “The coward is here”

In A Field in England, there are four archetypes: the educated coward, the driven leader, the bitter cynic, and the wise, plain-speaking simpleton. Their violent, black-and-white Civil War world — gunfire, bayonets, and explosions amid the long grass of the meadow — becomes pure chaos upon the insertion of O’Neil, a charismatic Irishman who might be the personification of Satan. “Open up, and let the devil in!”

A Field in England silhouettes

The field of the title buzzes with life. Regular inserts show tiny larvae creeping among the grasses, which wave in gorgeous slow motion. The humans cut a swathe through it, digging and bleeding into it, picking it up and eating it, but the field lives on despite their presence. It’s also my belief, though, that A Field in England is an applicable name for director Ben Wheatley’s cinematic sandbox: a space in film history that he is cultivating completely on his own. His earlier Kill List was the most surprising horror-drama I’ve seen in years, with possible influences as disparate as Clive Barker and Ken Loach, and his latest bears similarities with Eraserhead and Irréversible. I have joined Wheatley’s ever-growing fan following because rather than erecting untouchable monuments to his own genius, he draws us deep into his space and shows us these fresh horrors up close. Even at his most surreal, as he is in A Field in England, I don’t think he ever forgets his audience.

Not that this is an easy watch. Faces are blown off, visual non sequiturs abound, and stroboscopic effects feature prominently. Much of the first half hour or so is a search for detail: who are these people? Where did they come from? And where are they going? Rich and varied aural effects offer few clues. Occasionally, Wheatley breaks the loose narrative for what I would call a ‘live photograph’: the actors posing dramatically, with shivering hands and chests rising and falling, for no obvious reason. But slowly they reveal themselves through sparse dialogue, arguably the film’s strongest element. “Perhaps we should all go back and suffer,” says the simpleton looking back in the direction of the battlefield. “Knowledge is its own payment,” says the educated coward when asked how well his master keeps him. “Shit and thistles,” says the cynic as a description of the field (and possibly as a summation of his life).

A Field in England is bizarre and fragmented enough to be open to many interpretations. Mine is that it’s about power: who has it, why they have it, how it corrupts and evolves and dissolves. The educated coward has lived for a long time under one man’s power; how will he respond to sudden dominance by another master? Can a cynic ever be truly powerful? And in the absence of other personal qualities, how useful is a good leader? O’Neil is the controlling figure of doom that throws everything out of alignment, emitting his own fantastic, unexplained power and bringing everyone over to his side whether they like it or not, but he too is fallible. Absolute power, if it even exists outside of theory, cannot be wielded for long due to its shifting nature.

We sat way up the back of the Paramount for this one, and I joked at the start that it might be appropriate to look into the abyss from afar, rather than up close. We knew more or less what we were in for. It proved to be as nightmarish as expected, so perhaps we were saved from the savage head-trip we might have experienced up close. More pertinently, our distance from the screen meant that I took all my notes in the dark. They are a total mess, scrawled diagonally in fragments across lined pages:

A Field in England notes | NZFF

For a film as disorienting as A Field in England, that seems appropriate.

#nzff: Truth, Ruins, and Autonomy

In director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, Dwight lives an idyllic-sounding life: his home is in the sand dunes, he bathes in the sea, and he eats fresh fish for dinner. This isn’t how we meet him, though. The opening shots portray the plain interiors of a house with all the banal trappings of suburban life and eventually settle on bearded, bedraggled Dwight, soaking in the bathtub. A family arrives home and he leaps out the bathroom window in a towel, still dripping wet as he sprints awkwardly back into the margins of society. Not his banal life.

Dwight | Blue Ruin

Dwight, who lives in a rusty old car that he also drives, appears not to have been doing much with his life for some time. He has no friends, though he’s known to police; indeed, it’s the intervention of a sympathetic policewoman that gives Dwight his purpose and sets the plot in motion. Unfortunately, that purpose is bloody, clumsy revenge for an incident that happened long in the past. Whatever Dwight has been doing, he now has little on his mind except murder of the most functional and least glamorous kind.

There are a few laughs in Blue Ruin, and I was surprised at how much they made me laugh. Dwight’s general ineptitude is endearing in a sad kind of way, so when he hacksaws the end off an arrow embedded in his thigh before pouring alcohol all over the wound and ripping the head out, it’s as funny as it is cringeworthy. The film’s violent scenes also feel as banal as any of Dwight’s day-to-day life, illustrating how his world has been flattened out into a near-emotionless husk.

My problem was that once exposition took over about 40 minutes in, all the good work of the almost dialogue-free setup unravelled a little in the face of so much direct information. I would’ve been content not to know why any of this was happening if the rest of the film was as expertly crafted as that opening third, and there’s one character who has no real reason to trust Dwight but does so for the sake of the plot. As a result, the climax wasn’t the gut punch it maybe should’ve been, although there was some emotional resonance in the line, “Because my father loved your mother, we all die” — delivered as flatly and plainly as any other in the film.

Onto something completely different. I saw A Separation a few months ago and thought it was a total masterpiece, expertly crafted but with a very natural feel, believable and thought-provoking. My bar for The Past was therefore pretty high. Thankfully, it could be described in much the same way, and we can now declare that Asghar Farhadi is a cinematic master of truth and its consequences. Even the title card at the start is a perfect encapsulation of the film’s subject. He must put a lot of time into developing his films: they feel so natural and yet are so tightly crafted.

Berenice Bejo | The Past

Farhadi sets up the principal characters one by one — Marie-Anne, her ex-husband Ahmad, her new partner Samir, her children Lucie and Lea, and Samir’s son Fouad, who was born to his now-comatose wife. From there, the details of why Ahmad left and why Samir’s wife are in a coma are slowly revealed, and there’s so much going on with character that it’s impossible not to be drawn in. Coming in from the outside, but with the understanding of someone who’s lived in this house for years, Ahmad is able to weigh up every situation and speak freely and honestly towards a positive resolution, free of the baggage that confines everyone else’s present. And he is very helpful, and clearly still loved by everyone (apart from Samir, who you’ve got to feel for), but even from his more straightforward perspective he cannot know everything; truth is not as simple as it seems, and in some cases, an assumption can stand in for the truth without anyone really noticing.

Much of the action takes place in a grand old French house that Marie-Anne and Samir are redecorating to within an inch of its life, perhaps in an effort to paint over Ahmad’s past presence. My expletive-laden notes taken during the film ask why they want to put so many chandeliers in, and why they left an open tin of paint sitting around when there are unhappy young children on the loose. If they have a plan for the redecoration, it’s either a half-page afterthought or a messy binder full of clashing ideas. I really wanted to tell everyone to just stop for a day to sit down and figure out what they’re doing with their lives, which is kind of what Ahmad tries to do, but an honest appraisal only gets you so far — and anyway, no time for that now, the doorway needs painting.

Lucie | The Past | Pauline Burlet

The people in this film have been through some shit. They’re not particularly responsible, although they do genuinely love one another and want everything to work out. You can see it in Ahmad’s eyes when he remembers the final months of the marriage, or in Marie-Anne’s rage when her daughter fails to return home one night. Fouad is a naughty child, rebellious and violent, but he’s dealing with the loss of his mother and her sudden replacement with a new one. You can choose not to look back, but the past still happened. The acting is uniformly exceptional, and The Past is another masterpiece; the future, for these characters at least, remains uncertain.

Farhadi is from Iran, where it’s hard for a director to get a film made without government intervention. Wadjda is directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, a woman in Saudi Arabia, where it the list of things a woman can do seems shorter than the list of all they are barred from. Her film, about a sassy teenage girl who really wants to buy a bike in a land where “women don’t ride bikes”, is therefore a remarkable achievement, but it is worth your time for many other reasons besides.

Wadjda | Sneakers

Wadjda is the name of the teenage girl, and we quickly learn about the male-dominated world she inhabits — one that we in New Zealand, for all our faults and occasionally overt sexism, cannot even imagine. Turns out there are lewd construction site workers everywhere, and they’re not above shouting inappropriate comments at a young girl; the difference is that in Saudi Arabia, it’s officially the girl’s fault for being female. I wonder how the Bechdel test would apply to this film when its female characters’ entire function in society, drummed into them since the cradle, is to bear male children. Naturally, a lot of their conversation revolves around the men in their lives, but it isn’t just idle chatter: men are almost all they’ve been taught to care about, with Allah and the Devil watching on closely.

She really wants that bike, though. She’s even willing to devote herself to the Quran studies she hates in the hope of winning enough cash to buy one herself after her initial attempts at entrepreneurship move more slowly than she would like. But how sweet and winning those attempts are! Wadjda’s enterprising spirit even extends to her moments of sadness, when she readily accepts five riyals from a neighbourhood boy if she’ll just stop crying. She listens to Grouplove on her tinny cassette player and wears Converse sneakers to school. All this warrants regular cries of “khalas!” (‘Enough!’ orStop it!’) from her mother and teachers, but a girl like Wadjda needs autonomy. Otherwise, she’ll be stifled into misery.

Wadjda | Helmet | Bike

Wadjda is clearly a film by autonomous woman. It’s well made and well acted, and there’s a charming looseness about the plot that’s similar to Wadjda’s most appealing qualities. It’s inevitable that Wadjda will eventually be proposed marriage, but when it comes in one of the film’s later scenes, it isn’t the heel stamp on her freedom one might have expected; instead, it’s secondary to pursuing her bike dream, and all the more sweet for that. I left the cinema with a big smile on my face. If a woman can direct a film in Saudi Arabia,  a film ostensibly about women supporting one another through their oppression, maybe a girl can ride a bike?