Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Film Reviews

VIFF 2016: Con artists, poets, and life on the streets

viff_signature-01I still marvel at how the Vancouver International Film Festival seems to be one of the best-kept secrets on the West Coast. Opening a few weeks after Toronto, it is almost concurrent with the New York Film Festival, which makes headlines with the official American premieres of some of the season’s most anticipated films. Many of those very same films are screening across the country in Vancouver, often a day or two before NYFF, and it is a mere 2 ½ hours away from my Seattle domicile. It’s one of the quirks of the festival circuit: the films that made their respective North American premieres in Toronto (after a possible “unofficial” screening at Telluride) vie for a spot at NYFF, where it gets the media spotlight, while Vancouver quietly slips somewhere around half of those into their line-up.

Here are a few titles snagged by VIFF this year: Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl, Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada, Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle…. There are other films playing both fests, and plenty of films screening at Vancouver that are nowhere to be seen on the NYFF schedule, but that should give you a taste of a few of the delights that Vancouver offers over 16 days and eight venues (seven of them within walking distance of one another). It’s why I go every year that I am able.

The festival is over now and my report is a lot later than I intended but most (if not all) of the films I saw will be coming to a theater, disc, or VOD stream near you so here are notes on a few highlights from six days and two trips across the border.

Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (South Korea), his first film since his superb but unheralded American debut Stoker, returns to the intense imagery, twisting narratives, perverse subcultures, and elevated emotions of his Sympathy trilogy with a story of con artists in 1930s Korea. His lush South Korean thriller, adapted from the British novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters (also made into a British TV miniseries), has the look of a lavish period drama, the elegance of an arthouse picture, the complex plotting of an ingenious caper that only the movies could sustain, and the sex and nudity of an exploitation picture. Park adds the setting: Korea under Japanese colonial occupation. The target is the emotionally troubled heiress of a Japanese family fortune (Kim Min-hee) and the Korean con man (Ha Jung-woo) drafts a street pickpocket and thief (Kim Tae-ri) to play his inside woman, the handmaiden to the Lady. That’s as much as you’d want to know walking in to the film, which lays all that out quite swiftly and wittily in the first few minutes of an involved film filled with set pieces, switchbacks, and flashbacks. It has all the elements you want from a good genre film and then it adds a fascinating dimension of national identity and appropriation as a matter of power, which is more a matter of gender than culture. What appears to be an elegant, self-aware exploitation thriller in costume drama dress reveals itself to be a love story hidden in a tale of exploitation and allegiance and it rewards us with a perverse fairy tale ending, albeit a fairy tale where the big bad wolves are pornographers, forgers, and pimps.

Kim Min-he and Kim Tae-ri in 'The Handmaiden - Photo credit: Magnolia Pitures
Kim Min-he and Kim Tae-ri in ‘The Handmaiden – Photo credit: Magnolia Pitures

Pablo Larraín’s Nerdua (Chile) is ostensibly about the revered poet, senator, and face of Chile’s Communist Party in the 1940s when he went underground and into exile after the government started imprisoning Communist Party members, union leaders, and protesters, with plenty of poetic license applied to history. Call it Larraín’s Citizen Kane, the story of a man’s life as understood through the stories surround him and the power that such stories and perceptions have. As such, it’s a film about storytelling and cultural mythmaking as shaped by Neruda (played by Luis Gnecco as an artist and social bon vivant embracing bourgeois privilege while playing the voice of the proletariat in public) and narrated by his nemesis. Gael García Bernal is Police Prefect Óscar Peluchonneau, assigned by the president to arrest and, more importantly, discredit Neruda in the eyes of the adoring public. He’s the film’s answer to the Citizen Kane‘s reporter Thompson by way of a warped reflection peasant-born poet Neruda, narrating as if he’s the hero of the tale. He’s also a complete fiction, as if created by created by Neruda himself, a poet who carries around paperback detective novels as pinballs from one safe house to another. Larraín’s direction and lush images play up the mythopoetic angle while he undercuts the pretensions with reminders of the reality behind the theater with Peluchonneau’s barbed (yet woefully un-self-aware) commentary and glimpses of the heroes fumbling and stumbling through their imagined heroics. The gaffes and stumbles and failures are for us, a reminder that there are people behind the myth. The myth remains eternal, given life by art and by faith in our heroes.

Paterson (US) is the name of Adam Driver’s character, a blue collar city bus driver; the location, Paterson, NJ; and a reference to a book of poetry by William Carlos Williams, a son of Paterson (the city) and the favorite poet of Paterson (the man), who is also a poet. Got it? Paterson pens his modest odes—most of them inspired by his wife Laura (Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani of About Elly), in the seat of his bus before beginning his route or sitting on a park bench at lunch, scribbling the phrases he’s worked out while watching the world go past his windshield or eavesdropping on the conversations of passengers. This is Jim Jarmusch in the mode of the unassuming poet of everyday American dreamers, surveying the rhythms of life in the blue collar city and celebrating the artistic impulses and creative projects that bring color to our lives: a teenage girl scribbling her own poetry, a bartender with a wall dedicated to the greatest sons of Paterson, NJ, Laura’s black-and-white designs adorning everything from her handmaid curtains to her fledgling cupcake business, though she has a new dream seemingly every day. The humor is low key and the narrative a lazy drift through a week in Paterson’s life, which has its own, inviolable routine. For Jarmusch, the wonder comes in the grace notes and delightful coincidences (watch for the twins that keep weaving through his story) and the warmth in the way he appreciates those moments. Paterson hasn’t any grand ambitions—even his poetry is a private pleasure, so different from Laura’s exuberance in sharing her creative activities with the world—but it doesn’t make his art or his life any less meaningful.

Staying Vertical (France), written and directed by Alain Guiraudie (Stranger by the Lake), plays like a metaphor for creative labor and writer’s block that got lost in the same loop that Léo (Damien Bonnard), a blocked screenwriter avoiding his deadline with a circular journey through the French countryside to the city and back, endlessly spirals down. It opens with him trying to pick up a surly, handsome young punk (Basile Meilleurat) and then shacking up with a single mom (India Hair) on a sheep farm on the prairie. It’s hard to measure time passing in this loop and before we know, he’s the father of a newborn that mom essentially leaves him in the break-up. This closed universe also includes the strangest naturopathic doctor you’ve ever met (she attaches plant fronds to Léo like cables to check his vitals) and a cantankerous old man who blasts prog rock from vinyl in the farmhouse home he’s let slide since his wife’s death. Along with the hardly-subtle symbolism stirred through the cycle (watch out for the wolves picking off the sheep!) is explicit sexuality (no surprise to anyone familiar with Guiraudie’s films but startling to anyone else) and naked desire. I found it overly glib and indulgent and the pansexual Léo is not exactly likable but fatherhood makes him sympathetic—it’s the only thing that motivates him besides his own desires and creative blocks—and Guiraudie brings an enigmatic beauty to the physical landscapes and Léo’s spiritual transformation and a sour twist to his satire on artistic purity in a world where wolves pick off the stragglers and loners abandoned to the wilds. By the end of the film I was, if not won over, at least intrigued by the earthy poetry of Guiraudie’s direction and the mix of resignation to loss and determination to survive.

Ken Loach won the Palm d’Or for I, Daniel Blake (UK), a classic Loach social commentary on the struggles of the working classes and underclasses let down by society. This one, about a 59-year-old carpenter and widower in Newcastle recovering from a heart attack while fighting for assistance, is at once an angry assault on a bureaucracy that treats people as case numbers to be filed and shuffled on, a defiant cry for dignity and respect for the folks at the bottom of the social ladder, and a touching portrait of human compassion and contact in the cracks of the system and the queues of people lining up for government assistance. The paperwork deems Daniel (played with incredulity and dogged determination by comedian Dave Johns) fine for work (no matter that his heart surgeon forbids him from returning to work) and cuts off his disability assistance, sending him through a surreal maze with no exit. Loach sustains the grueling ordeal with a tart humor, courtesy of John’s exasperated commentary at every bureaucratic roadblock, and his outreach to a single mother newly arrived in the area and struggling to feed her two kids while her assistance is on hold. It’s not just the compassion, it’s the feeling of being useful that the system his systematically beaten down. Katie (Hayley Squires) is not the daughter he never had, she’s just someone who needs someone on her side. That’s something Daniel can provide and it gives him reason to keep plugging away.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have their own way with social realism and commentary, one that that doesn’t have Loach’s humor but is just as good at capturing the textures and rhythms of lives and often better as sketching the anxieties and conflicts within communities. The Unknown Girl (Belgium) revisits themes from earlier films—poverty in poor communities, families going paycheck to paycheck, immigrants at the bottom of the social food chain—but views them through the eyes of a young doctor (Adèle Haenel). She’s on her way out of a small neighborhood office she has been running for a retired old doctor (perhaps a mentor, certainly a friend), treating folks on assistance and government insurance, at times paying out pocket in cash, at others putting off payments, and into bigger practice with prestige, resources, and an more upscale clientele. And then she discovers that a young woman found dead nearby had knocked on her door as she was closing and she ignored her. The police have no identity for the young woman, an immigrant and probably a streetwalker, so the doctor takes the responsibility upon herself and follows the trail into outskirts of the community she’s never really experienced. This is Dardenne redux in many ways, a film shot almost entirely with handheld cameras getting a little closer to the subjects than we’re used to, measuring both the connections she has built with some patients and the distance she keeps with others. But I also appreciate how her journey is initially driven by guilt but ends up powered by compassion and a sense of responsibility. Where I, Daniel Blake ends in frustration and rage and blame at the system, The Unknown Girl suggests that we can make things better one person at a time.