Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals

VIFF 2011: Dispatch 3 – ‘I Wish’ and ‘My Back Page’

Apologies for the tardiness of my third dispatch. I had to duck out of festival mode and jump back into the home video mode of my day job for a couple of days. Now I’m back at the festival and back on the fest blog beat, catching up with notes of films I saw earlier in the week.

Belated update: the DCP issues at Granville 7 that I mentioned earlier this week have been resolved and the screenings are back in all their 4K glory. Ann Hui’s A Simple Life looked fine and my return visit with the South Korean war drama The Front Line looked even better (more on those later).

Is it churlish to say that I miss the inventive promos that used to play in front of each screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival? Every year they would roll out a collection of three or four comic pieces spoofing movie conventions, film culture and, my favorite, the unique community of obsessives, eccentrics and cinephiliacs that populate film festival culture. My favorite because even as I immediately recognized the “type” being simultaneously celebrated and satirized, I also recognized a little of myself.

But I can hardly complain. In place of the usual compendium of festival IDs, sponsor plugs and other promo pieces, VIFF presents a single short piece that identifies the festival, the organization and the sponsors and gets all the preliminaries out of the way in under a minute. That’s not just efficiency, it’s a gift to us festival junkies working our way through multiple screenings every day. So while I do miss those perfectly pitched promo skits of years past, I thank you, VIFF, for your 30th Anniversary gift to us all.

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have their first festival reports up at their indispensable blog, including notes on a couple of experimental documentaries, contemplations on film structure and  “Reasons of Cinephile Optimism.” Fellow Seattlite Jim Emerson is posting his dispatches at his Scanners blog.

On the lake in 'Two Years at Sea'

And now, some film notes:

Two Years At Sea (U.K., dir: Ben Rivers) Part documentary, part staged experience, part meditative portrait of a hermit living of the grid in rural Scotland, this debut feature from experimental filmmaker Ben Rivers is all about texture, from the beauty of the B&W 16mm widescreen photography (Rivers hand-processed his film, which gives the image a distinctive pulse) to the pace of life unfolding for this man alone. It’s a narrative only in as much as one scene follows another. Otherwise, it could a still life in motion, captured forever in Rivers’ frame. Lovely.

Fatigue (South Korea, dir/scr/ed/prod: Kim Dongmyung) The title says it all: a wife and mother of a needy infant is left alone all day in an anonymous apartment complex (the buildings are differentiated only by the numbers painted on them) by husband who returns only for food, TV and sex, which she endures with a corpse-like, dead-eyed resignation. Needless to say, it wears her down. A first film shot on digital video, this Dragons and Tiger competition entry is a minimalist, stripped down production more focused on performance than cinematic expression. The director cites Claire Denis and Michael Haneke as inspirations, but there are echoes of Jeanne Dielman as well in the repetitions and the rigor of the formal framing, but the drab, inexpressive cinematography fails to give these snapshots a physical presence, a life beyond the point made by the director. It becomes more of an exercise than a film.

'I Wish'

I Wish (Japan, dir/scr: Kore-eda Hirokazu) While you could say that Kore-eda returns to the themes of childhood innocence and loyalty and dedication of Nobody Knows, I Wish couldn’t be more different. This is a truly benevolent vision of childhood. Even though it turns on a divorce that has separated two schoolboy brothers (they talk every day via cell phone), there is no betrayal and no danger to these boys and friends. Sure, musician dad is a little flaky, but he’s certainly loving and even brings the younger son along with him to gigs. The boys are conspiring to reunite the parents, as much as they can while living their own lives, and pin their hopes on a “wish” they will make upon the newly-launched bullet train (the kids have created their own legend of magic around the new technology), but even this wish isn’t something done in earnest. This isn’t a Disney film and the friends all know that magic is a fantasy, but the pilgrimage becomes important in itself. The kids are marvelous without becoming cloying or cute and for a film with so little conflict, it is completely involving, wonderfully warm and full of natural humor. And after Nobody Knows, I think he owed us a film about children who are NOT in peril. I consider the debt paid in full.

My Back Page (Japan, dir: Yamashita Nobuhiro) Named after a Bob Dylan song (singular noun aside) and based on an autobiographical novel about a young journalist caught up in the unrest and social ambivalence of the student protests of the early seventies, Yamashita Nobuhiro’s expansive drama is epic in scope and intimate in approach. Sawada (Tsumabuki Kenichi), against his better judgment and even better advice from a sympathetic senior colleague, puts his trust in Umeyama (Matsuyama Kenichi), a self-styled activist whose soft-spoken manner and easy charisma has attracted a small cell of acolytes without actually articulating (and possibly not really knowing himself) his intentions. Yamashita presents a dense recreation of the era largely through the cultural sensibility of the newsroom and the reporter bars as contrasted with the cell group meetings and interviews with activists in hiding, and in Sawada he offers the most confused and at times misguided character of the entire festival. While the film can’t possibly encapsulate the era in this one journey, it comes pretty close to communicating the contradictions and confusion and ambivalence in one man’s odyssey. More to come on this one…

Cross-posted at The House Next Door

For a complete schedule and other information, visit the VIFF website.