The film opens with Jean Watson, eighty, her face creased with river-like wrinkles, wandering around the streets of Kanyakumari and lowering herself into the ocean as dozens of young Indian boys (and a camera) look on. My first thought — I couldn’t help myself — was ‘I’ve swum in that ocean!’ And I had, a strange trip in 2009 during which my then-girlfriend was groped repeatedly and I lacerated my feet on sharp underwater rocks. It’s a beautiful location, revered by many as the point where three seas meet, but my memories of it aren’t entirely positive. No such problems for Jean Aunty, though, who wanders through it all with the same inscrutable expression on her face, and who emerges from the water cleansed and energised, ready for the next challenge.
I hadn’t heard of Jean Watson before seeing AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE, and I expect many New Zealanders won’t have heard of her either, despite her many published novels, her long romance with Barry Crump, and her considerable humanitarian work in India. Watson is one of life’s observers, regularly found at the extreme right or left of group photographs, peering into the camera with the same watchful eye she casts over her surroundings. She is an intrepid, self-effacing realist, moving through life without fanfare; even in a South Indian village, where any foreigner is met with prolonged stares and chatter, she seems capable of blending into the background. Her decades of involvement in improving young boys’ and girls’ lives in India prove that you don’t need to be romantic to be idealistic; she sees the world as it is, not for what it could be, and tries to make it better.
Watson is the chief benefactor of Karunai Illam, which was set up in the late 1980s and which offers orphaned children the value of routine. Rather than being left to scratch around the streets on their own, or bounced from orphanage to orphanage, Karunai Illam gets them out of bed and brushing their teeth at the same time every day before filling them up with a hot meal and sending them off to school. These are children for whom deceased parents are merely a fact of life. But they look healthy, and happy, and show an abundance of curiosity about the world.
In fact, given their aspirations to become doctors and engineers, it’s slightly frustrating that so many of director Gerard Smyth’s questions to the girls revolve around marriage. This feels like a missed opportunity to gain more insight into their deeper thoughts. But marriage and reproduction are also a huge factor in the kids’ lives, an inevitability for many, and probably at a young age; it’s understandable that it might be at the forefront of their minds. And apart from this, Smyth does a fine job of taking us inside Watson’s two worlds: her anonymous writer’s life in Wellington and her status as life-changer for hundreds of children in Nilakkottai.
Apart from Watson and the kids, the other person seen most often in AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE is Joy Cowley, an old friend of Watson’s and — through her innumerable and widely popular children’s books — a friend to almost every New Zealander. Where Watson’s insights are plain-spoken and straightforward, Cowley’s are effortlessly elegant and warm. She has a gift for language and, apparently, great reserves of empathy and generosity. She is a joy to spend a little time with. I can’t wait for the film about her.
A group of children, each aged somewhere between five and ten, call in unison to a toddler. They have just bestowed upon her the nickname ‘Takenoko’ (Li’l Bamboo) because of her freakishly rapid growth. “Takenoko! Takenoko!” they shout, and she starts wandering away from the front porch of the house where she lives and over to them, a grin on their face.
Her father notices her straying from home, so he calls after her with his own nickname: “Hime!” (Princess!)
She pauses halfway between the children and her father. The children shout louder. “Takenoko! Takenoko!”
It’s cute. There’s no danger; the kids, bred with the collectivist values of countryside life, pose no real threat to Kaguya. She is clearly not in any distress, just caught between two human forces eager for her attention.
The grin drops from her face as she looks from one group to the other in confusion. The calls grow and grow until they drown out the chatter of birds and rustle of nearby trees. The children point their heads to the sky and yell as loud as they can. Her father cranes his neck towards her and screams, his eyes closed and his cheeks red with effort. Finally, the smile returns and she starts toddling back to her father. The children give up and stop their bellowing.
You’d expect the father’s protective tension to dissipate, having won the vocal battle for his daughter’s affections. But it doesn’t. He yells even louder. He starts to cry. He can’t bear even to wait a few more seconds for his little princess to come to him, so he gets up from the porch and runs to her, taking her in his arms as tears stream down his face. It takes several seconds before the embrace starts to calm him down. His love consumes and overwhelms him to the point of delusion and toxicity, leading him — and her — into a mirage of happiness. It blinds him from the truth of his life.
This is just one scene from THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA, which is sad, contemplative, surprising, and indescribably beautiful. It’s also a bit longer than its thin story deserves, but that feels unfair in the face of such visual brilliance, which was a joy to behold from first minute to last. The animation resembles watercolours and charcoal drawings, and if ever there was a film from which you could print any frame and stick it on your wall, this is it.
I expected all that — just watch the trailer, for goodness’ sake — but I didn’t expect the story, and scenes like the one described above, to stay with me for so long afterwards. It touches on ecology, family relationships, parenting, and the folly of blindly following tradition. It reminds you to be true to yourself. A simple message, but one worth repeating — especially with such inspiration and beauty.
I laid my head down on the pillow and heard Mica Levi’s discordant, grinding score. It whirled inside my head, intercut with the most striking images from UNDER THE SKIN — particularly the 2001-esque pre-credits creation sequence — just as it had for the previous five hours since the film ended. The following night it was the same. There was no escape. I didn’t particularly mind; I like a film that makes me feel something.
Two phrases rang in my head as I settled into my seat way down the front of the Embassy Theatre. One: “it’s pretty visually intense”, spoken in warning by an usher as I tramped down to the front rows so I would be closer to the screen. Two: “misogynist”, a word David Larsen used speculatively in his brief review for The Listener (scroll down to Day Six). On reflection, I think that neither phrase applies — although a subjective case could be made for both. There’s little objective truth in UNDER THE SKIN, except perhaps the strikingly unsettling nature of Levi’s score. Scotland is as beautiful or desolate as you prefer to see it; there is a total absence of humour, or several chuckles of the blackest kind; bodies of liquid can be either vitally restorative or a death sentence. My own opinion on each of these questions changes from moment to moment.
There’s one scene where a character is introduced with the obvious intention of drawing a laugh from the audience. Glazer then flips that around with later scenes involving this character, providing — for me at least — the film’s most unspeakable horror. Despite its Kubrickian artfulness, UNDER THE SKIN seems to have been made in a sort of ramshackle, cobbled-together fashion, so it’s difficult to say whether this bait-and-switch was intentional. It’s that kind of thing, though, that makes it such a remarkable and unnverving work of art. Just like Scarlett Johansson’s appropriately blank character, haltingly drawing men into her van of doom, it hooks you in one way then smacks you around the head in another.
I have a lot of other notes from the screening, scribbled anxiously but legibly as I tried to make sense of it all. Samples:
So delicate that under a light touch, it shrinks to nothing. I went to LILTING for two reasons:
Ben Whishaw, the brilliant and honest young actor from CLOUD ATLAS and BRIGHT STAR, whose performance in this film was described in the NZIFF program as one of ‘exquisite sympathetic imagination’;
The focus on cross-cultural communication, a particular interest of mine.
Whishaw is just fine, as always, as is the rest of the cast. And the cross-cultural communication is reasonably realistically portrayed, if rather stagy. But this turns out to be one of the film’s biggest flaws.
The vast majority of its runtime is taken up by scenes involving Whishaw’s character, the prickly mother of his deceased partner (Pei-Pei Cheng), and a Mandarin-English interpreter (Naomi Christie), meaning we get each line of dialogue twice: once in English, once in Mandarin. These conversations-by-proxy may be realistic, but they aren’t particularly thrilling or dramatic, nor do they illuminate much about the characters’ struggle to connect. The differences between Whishaw and Cheng are immediately apparent — progressive, young, gay British man, and traditional, old, straight Chinese-Cambodian woman — and the way those differences are overcome ultimately has little to do with spoken language. More than anything else, the three-way dialogue scenes make for a film that’s at least one-and-a-half times longer than it needed to be.
Apart from all that, I was left with way more questions than answers. Not questions of philosophical import about the nature of communucation, as I’d hoped for, but vexing questions about the plot: what does Whishaw’s character do for a living, given that he’s able to live in that massive flat but we never see him work? Why does he want Cheng to stay romantically involved with a fellow retirement home resident? Suddenly, he and the interpreter — a woman — seem very close; how and when did that happen?
Khaou’s frustrating tendency in LILTING is to linger way too long on scenes of little consequence, then skim over the moments that actually catch the attention. He even turns up the score — the cloying, manipulative, ‘feel something you dicks’ score — to the point that it obscures what may have been some of the most tantalising pieces of dialogue, if we’d been able to hear them. It’s ironic that a film about overcoming the limits of our communicative abilities is itself spoiled by an over-reliance on withholding information from the audience.
The quirks of nziff.com’s online seat allocation mean that nerdy early bookers like me are almost always put in the middle of a full row, regardless of the overall house size. When I staggered into VOICES OF THE LAND, heaving after me a plastic bag filled with hardcover library books, I stared down that ancient social experiment: shuffle past two already-seated patrons and hope they don’t hate you forever. Fortunately for me, the two women — I’d guess they were in their seventies — stood with a smile. I still apologised for existing, as one must.
The plastic bag crashed into the second woman’s leg as I sat down next to her. “You’re quite the reader, aren’t you?” she said. I admitted the books had been borrowed by my girlfriend and that I hadn’t read a word of them. The woman segued seamlessly into a discussion of a book she recently read and was fascinated by. It went in one ear and out the other, but I nodded an acknowledgement and proceeded to tell her what I was reading: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, which concerns a Dutch man living in New York when the planes hit the World Trade Center. His marriage steadily disintegrates thereafter, and the rest of his life devolves into meaninglessness. The man’s only solace is cricket, which he played often as a boy and is surprised to find in baseball-mad NYC.
The woman nodded back, then said her son was in New York on September 11 as well. She noted that his marriage had also fallen apart over the ensuing couple of years, and that he and his then-wife ultimately divorced. My brief description of Netherland must have sounded uneasily familiar, and I was struck by the reminder of how directly fiction can echo reality. But if the eerieness of the coincidence bothered her, she didn’t show it. In any case, it didn’t seem like the time or place to delve deeper, and I felt embarrassed at having unwittingly called to mind her son’s past trials, so I simply said “That’s no good” and asked what else she was seeing in the film festival. We went on to talk about our expectations of VOICES OF THE LAND and its subject, the brilliant Richard Nunns, a Pākehā who learned how to play Taonga pūoro (traditional Māori instruments) in dreams. Then the film started.
Nunns has Parkinson’s disease, and as you watch him shuffle with a stooped gait along forest paths and stony beaches with protégé Horomona Horo, it’s as if the Earth is slowly pulling him back down to it. His connection with the land is greater than most, comparable to almost any Māori. Over his seven decades, he has accumulated an unequalled volume of experience and knowledge regarding Taonga pūoro, and that flows into a wealth of other insights: about divine inspiration, about why Pākehā often fail to connect with Māori, about the nature of sound and its value to us, and about his own influence. He shares these insights in his own inimitable, rhythmic language: “these are the ways in which our sonic environment is subsumed.” As much as the land may be calling him back, Richard Nunns’ abundance of knowledge — and his awareness that it is held by remarkably few — may be weighing him down.
So he’s passing it on to Horo, an affable and deferent man with a hulking figure and a long ponytail. Through this film collaboration with Paul Wolffram, he’s also passing some of it on to us. Ninety minutes in Nunns’ company could never compare to the lifetime of looking and listening it’s taken to get him to this level of understanding, and Horo is clearly the next master of Taonga pūoro, but there is so much for an audience — especially in New Zealand — to take away from VOICES OF THE LAND. Take the headphones out of your ears next time you go for a walk. Allow yourself to experience the sound waves moving through you. Pay attention to where those sounds are coming from. Respect their sources, and remember that the river or the forest have been around a lot longer than you have. A lot of Nunns’ work with Horo, and previously with the late, great Hirini Melbourne, involves playing to the land: taking their instruments out to some barely touched forest or foreshore scene, usually by request, and following their sonic inspiration. Their mastery is not so much of the instruments but of their connection with them, and by extension the land itself.
Throughout VOICES OF THE LAND, I couldn’t help being reminded of my dad, who I sometimes feel I am slowly becoming. Like Nunns, he has an array of artifacts displayed around his house, including several creaking bookshelves bearing cherished works; like Nunns, he has a story for each of them, and for pretty much everything else in his sphere of orbit. Among the artifacts are some instruments, some of which bear some resemblance to Taonga pūoro. My dad was once in the Scratch Orchestra, a collective led by Phil Dadson that performed a combination of music and sonic experimentation. The one I always remember is the repeated scrunching up of a page of newspaper into a ball then reopening it, maybe fifteen or twenty times. Try this, if you have a newspaper handy, and notice how the sound and feel of the newsprint changes. It’s this kind of mindfulness towards the objects and sounds in one’s environment that Nunns has spent his whole life promoting.
I was lucky enough to see Melbourne and Nunns perform once, at WOMAD in Auckland in 1999. They took over the Auckland Town Hall for an hour and held everyone in their thrall as they moved between various instruments that had been placed on the stage. This music was like nothing I’d heard before: sparse, not particularly tuneful, but possessed of a seemingly inherent gravity that captivated me. (By the way, you probably already know this sound if you’ve seen any New Zealand film since ONCE WERE WARRIORS, but if you’re drawing a blank, have a listen here.) My dad was sitting beside me that day; he’d bought my ticket. Later, I was too embarrassed — too fourteen and pimply — to dance to Pacific Island fusion group Te Vaka out in Aotea Square, but my dad was shuffling away with a smile on his face in his huge black-and-blue jandals. At one point he gently admonished me for folding my arms and refusing to give in. “Can’t you just let it take you over eventually, just let it move your feet for you?” I remained coiled, and he carried on dancing.
VOICES OF THE LAND closes with one of the best final shots I’ve seen: a moment of dazzling, patient, inevitable simplicity, a reminder of the wonder in something that happens perpetually. It left me feeling inspired and moved. The woman asked me what I thought as we stood up and left the cinema, and I told her that I loved the film but felt embarrassed that I’d seen (and heard) so little of New Zealand. “Oh, you must,” she said. “Why haven’t you seen much? Are you not from here?”
I replied that I grew up in the Waikato and have since lived in Auckland, Christchurch, and Wellington; that I’d visited beautiful locations such as Cape Reinga, Mahia, the Tararuas, Abel Tasman National Park, and Castle Basin in the Southern Alps. And as I spoke, I realised that I have seen quite a lot of New Zealand. I’ve only seen the Tararuas and Abel Tasman thanks to my girlfriend, who is as filled with fascination in nature as anyone I’ve met. But I owe the rest — and many others — to my parents, especially my dad. We had so many week-long driving holidays when I was a kid, sleeping in tents and living on Rice Risotto as we took in the many sights of the North Island. My dad was obsessed with taking the back roads instead of the state highways, carsickness be damned, just to see something different. He lived for some years on the edge of bush in the Waitakere Range, west of Auckland, and he still feels its pull. Whatever connection I have to the land, I owe a huge part of it to him.