#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.


I got on that plane, still buzzing from all that had just happened, and the first leg of my journey to India began. To Beijing first, sitting next to a Japanese guy who studies there and was reasonably tolerant of my show-and-tell. Man, I showed those letters and photos to anyone fool enough to stop for a second, but I’ll shut up about that now.

Beijing had a new terminal built for the Olympics, terminal 3. It is quite ludicrously cavernous, like some evil dragon mastermind’s lair for plotting world domination OH WAIT… lucky I didn’t try and post that using the government’s free wireless in the terminal. Actually, Blogger is usually blocked in China, but for the duration of the Olympics they let the guard down to avoid awkward situations. But I digress.

From Beijing I continued on Air China to Delhi, sitting next to another Japanese guy, this time with a thirst for travelling. We talked a fair bit about the places we’ve been to (many for him, very few for me) and he gave me his card and said I should email him in case there’s a chance of us meeting up again in India or somewhere further down the line. It’s nice to meet such people on one’s travels.

Indira Gandhi Airport at Delhi is a little dustier than Beijing, Narita or Auckland, but all my luggage arrived so I didn’t care. That was kind of what I wanted, leaving those obsessively clean and mechanical aspects of Japan behind. Hilariously, I didn’t go through any customs of any kind; the channels were there, and they were staffed, but they were so bored and disinterested that you could probably get through pushing a hive of bees. I did have to change money, though, fighting off those attempting to push in ahead of me in the melee that is a queue in India. That’s one thing the British left alone.

I’d booked my hotel in advance and arranged for them to pick me up at the airport, and sure enough, there was a young guy waiting with an A4 printout saying my name. I went up to him and, without a word, he started walking and beckoned me to follow, barking instructions to someone on a cellphone. We got outside, where the sounds and particularly the smell of the city were quite different from anywhere I’ve been before – funny how those are the senses I link most to my memories of arriving – and made our way to a beaten-up blue van with a glow-in-the-dark display of the Hindu Holy Trinity illuminating the dashboard.

We weaved our way across city roads which were largely deserted but still required the driver to sit on the horn for much of the time. I’ve only this week understood that here, the horn is not reserved for emergencies or frustration; here, it’s as vital a road tool as indicator lights or clearly defined road markings are back home. You blast the horn to notify of your presence. If you don’t, you won’t be seen and are likely to cause an accident. It makes sense in the absence of those things I just mentioned, and now it’s as much a part of the aural wallpaper as the cicadas were in Kamakura.

Eventually we made it to Hotel Vivek, my home for this night and the next. I didn’t realize it was going to be in basically the roughest part of Delhi (and possibly all India), with shopkeepers hurling insults at me as I ignored their invitations for a cup of tea or a light meal at 2 in the morning. I also didn’t expect to see an albino lizard scurrying across the wall behind reception, a reception staffed by three men who seemed quite put out by the fact that I wanted to stay in their hotel. (I saw the lizard again the next day, so I’m guessing it’s like most hotels have a cat, just this one has an albino lizard.)

At such an early hour and after a day’s worth of travel, I was a little overwhelmed by dealing with a place so different from anywhere I’d been before. Still, I breathed a sigh of relief that I’d made it with no hint of difficulty, and appreciated the fact that this kind of cultural atmosphere was going to help me grow in so many ways. To my non-descript, dusty room, and to sleep… much more to come.