Tag Archives: nzff

No budget, no genre, no problem: Chronesthesia (2016)

Chronesthesia

Image by glix (Flickr)

I found lots to like about Chronesthesia.

The high-concept premise seems like a gimmick at first, but it earns its big climax and all the editing trickery along the way. The ‘mental time travel’ idea is both a way into the story and an effective means of pushing it forward.

The characters are well-realised people, from youngest to oldest, and their conversations feel authentic, whether they’re meeting cute or arguing, whether or not they’re generations apart. You really feel an emotional investment by actor/director/editor/writer Weal in all of them, even in the smaller supporting roles, and he deserves extra credit for that, especially as he is the star of the film and in nearly every scene. It could so easily have been a straight-up vanity project. Perhaps he realised the quality of the talent opposite him and decided to give them room to do their thing.

Wellington looks marvellous. We already knew that, but Duncombe’s cinematography shows it off in style. Because this is a no-budget film, I also have to mention the sound quality, which is impeccable.

This is a rare film that takes mental illness seriously, to the point that large chunks of dialogue explore its effects on and place in society. A character with mental illness is treated with consistent respect, despite at times being a potential danger to the people around him. Not just a plot device after all!

The only thing I would change is the title. Being a New Zealand film, and hence a product of British English, it should be ‘Chronaesthesia’. But I’ll give them a pass if it gets them an American distribution deal.

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The audacity of hope: Tanna (2015)

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Photo by sydneydawg2006 (Flickr)

The Romeo and Juliet comparison is obligatory, so let’s get that out of the way.

But no, really, Tanna is a lot like Romeo and Juliet. Except it’s set in tribal lands in Vanuatu, where residents have rejected money, Christianity, democracy, and t-shirts, instead choosing a traditional life. And this story really happened, only a few decades ago.

And instead of going all in with the tragedy, it ends with hope — the hope that if you look at the consequences of certain customs, and see how tragic they can be, you can find another way. The hope of charismatic and thoughtful leadership, with speeches backed by action. The hope that minds can change.

It’s so easy to be cynical about such sentiments. You hear them so often from politicians and they so rarely amount to anything tangible. But that’s truly how Tanna made me feel! I would never want to live the way the Yakel do, but I think we can all learn something from them, or at least be reminded of how we are capable of learning.

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A study in disappointment: Tokyo Story (1953)

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Sake. Photo by cleber (Flickr)

It is our nature to disappoint ourselves, and each other; to fall short of expectations, over and over, until we accept our flaws and lower the bar. We cannot bank on others to be there when we need them; to act nobly and selflessly in times of trial. Likewise, we cannot hold ourselves up as paragons of humanity because in the end, we all have a limit at which we give up and go back to looking out for ourselves. Everyone has to go back to work eventually.

***

So, there were three guys sitting next to each other in the front row. Two of them knew each other, the third was a stranger. For the first half hour or so, the older guy of the two who knew each other kept murmuring comments to his friend, and eventually, the third guy shushed him loudly. The older guy stopped murmuring and stared at the third guy, the guy he didn’t know, in what I judged to be a mixture of disbelief and rage. I readied myself to jump the row of seats and wade into the fight, but he calmed down and went back to watching the movie, and he didn’t talk again.

***

The classic, knockout, heartbreaker exchange in Tokyo Story comes near the end, between the naive and good-natured youngest sister and the ceaselessly graceful and understanding sister-in-law, who is ultimately the core of the film.

“Isn’t life disappointing?” says the younger sister.
“Yes, it is,” says the sister-in-law with a smile.

I waited for the subtly momentous emotional release of these lines throughout the film. I looked forward to the encapsulation of the entire film in Setsuko Hara’s beatific smile. And when they arrived, about half the audience laughed, including the guy right next to me.

I suppose it is kind of amusing, in an absurd way. The total acceptance of the sister-in-law is so at odds with our base nature that it seems unbelievable. And there’s the culture clash between 1950s Japan and 2010s NZ, one concerned with long working hours and emotional reserve, the other with mental health days and instant gratification.

And I suppose it was fitting that my expectations for that scene were disappointed by the reaction of my fellow cinema patrons.

***

I first saw Tokyo Story when I was 19 and didn’t really get it, though I could acknowledge how formally magnificent it was; a perfect technical expression of an artist’s vision within the limits of the medium. I’m now 31 and have a lot more first-hand knowledge of the various disappointments we are destined to experience, and of my own inherently flawed nature. The film’s central premise is therefore closer to my grasp, and exquisitely expressed in the writing, and by the actors, who perform their roles with a rare mix of functionality and precision.

This is a great film in every way.

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UNDER THE SKIN: Sleep no more

Scarlett Johansson kaleidoscope Under the Skin

Film4 / BFI

UNDER THE SKIN
directed by Jonathan Glazer
Metacritic: 78

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:

  • Jesus. The sea
  • Snuffing lives out as if they mean nothing
  • can’t understand what people are saying
  • breathing this lady’s perfume
  • how we augment ourselves
  • who’s the guy
  • reversing the gaze?
  • skin > river of blood > life
  • What’s under her own skin?
  • Liability? Vulnerable. Confused
  • NOT HUMAN

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LILTING: Walling us out

LILTING
directed by Hong Khaou
Review: The Lumiere Reader – ‘A remarkably delicate affair’

So delicate that under a light touch, it shrinks to nothing. I went to LILTING for two reasons:

  1. 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’;
  2. 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.

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VOICES OF THE LAND: Calling on

NGĀ REO O TE WHENUA – VOICES OF THE LAND
directed by Paul Wolffram
Review: Cinema Aotearoa

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 Pakeha 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 Pakeha 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.

Read an interview with Richard Nunns here.
Read more about Taonga pūoro here.

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PATEMA INVERTED: Bloody kids

Patema InvertedPATEMA INVERTED
directed by Yasuhiro Yoshiura
The Guardian: 3/5

What an idea! Two groups of people, one with their gravity inverted so they walk on the ceiling and have to construct their lives around not falling into the sky. The two groups live in adjacent cities with little awareness of one another, primarily because their respective leaders do everything they can to keep them separate. PATEMA INVERTED brings them into contact through Patema, a teen girl heroine from the underground city with a penchant for unauthorised exploration, and Eiji, a fish-out-of-water in the 1984-esque Earthbound society.

So much potential. So many possible paths to tread, and so many facets of a compelling idea to explore. But while he sustained my interest through the premise, Yoshiura lost me with his characters. Often, just as the world began to draw me in and get my mind turning over, he’d hone back in on Eiji and Patema, stereotypical anime teenagers, alternately sullen and earnest. Their connection begins unconvincingly with youthful stargazing and, once cemented, blinds them to almost anything else. At one point, they reach an incomprehensibly vast city that appears to be deserted, but their focus remains squarely on each other. I wouldn’t mind, but if you’re going to make your film about the characters, then they need to be more captivating than this pair.

The ending is one of PATEMA INVERTED’s more satisfying elements, as it fits the scenario into a wider context and inverts our previous understanding of the characters. But I still left feeling cheated. Why couldn’t they have applied that level of inspiration to the rest of it?

The film I really wanted to see from this scenario would’ve had Eiji and Patema have sex as soon as possible, then focus on their offspring. Would they be able to fly? Would they use their understanding of both societies to bring about peace? Would they be unloved outcasts wherever they went? That would have been really interesting.

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