In Shohei Imamura’s 1983 masterpiece The Ballad of Narayama, a woman fast approaching 70—the age when the old are sent into the mountains to die—works to ensure her sons’ future well-being. Marrying fatalism and selflessness, the film measures the flow of life and death in a village that lives on the edge of starvation. Now Imamura’s son Daisuke Tendan imagines what may have happened to the old ladies dumped in the snowy wastes. Turns out that, decades ago, one crone refused to accept her fate, somehow managing to survive by eating bark and the like. Now she’s the 100-year-old matriarch of a rag-tag tribe of castoff grannies. Their sanctuary, consisting of several primitive shelters barely visible beneath snow, is called Dendera.
How strange and wonderful, especially for one accustomed to airbrushed American movies, to watch a film full of old women, their lined faces and arthritic bodies reflecting the many seasons of their lives, the idiosyncratic beauty and grotesquerie of age. But the striking cast and the scenic grandeur of the setting are not enough to distract from the fact that Dendera doesn’t really know why or where it’s going.
Just when the ancient “queen” has convinced the toothless, white-haired Amazons they should wreck vengeance on the village that exiled them, a ferocious bear and her cub raid their precious stores, slinging defenders left and right in great sprays of blood. Is the relentless assault of this desperate, monstrous mother a sign? Have the septuagenarians violated some law of nature by living beyond their time? The bloody and prolonged struggle against the marauders, meant to suggest primal eruptions of nature red in tooth and claw, loses dramatic punch because the action is so sloppily choreographed … and the bear too often resembles an ambulatory rug.
Dendera isn’t good enough to realize its grabby ideas. It falls short even in making you feel in your very flesh and bones the brutal “weather” of survival—heavy falling snow, avalanches, oases of warm campfires in dim shelters. Tendan tries to invoke the power of primal “feminism,” but though his crones are physically arresting, they don’t pack the emotional or spiritual power that would make us believe in them as world-changers.
The 30th Vancouver International Film Festival opened on Thursday, September 29 with a full day of screenings and an opening night double-shot event of Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In and Fredrick Wiseman’s documentary Crazy Horse at the Vogue (back in the VIFF stable of screens after an absence of many years).
I arrived in Vancouver mid-morning on Friday, September 30, checked in with the always welcoming staff of the festival office (my favorite press office in the festival world) and jumped into screenings as VIFF expanded to its full complement of ten screens (plus a couple of special event 3D screenings set for the Park Theater), all within strolling distance of one another in the heart of downtown Vancouver. I hope to spend time with a few standout films, but until then I’ll be sharing my journal of day-by-day screenings.
Emphasis, as always, will be on the “Dragons and Tigers” program of over 40 features (plus compilations, mid-length films and shorts) from Asia, but I’ll be jumping around to other countries and films as well when I can.
Here’s my first day of screenings.
Tyranossaur (UK, dir: Paddy Considine) There’s nothing new in Paddy Considine’s directorial debut, but like so many other British actors who turn to British miserablism in the warzone of poverty and neglect and crime when they step behind the camera, the redemption is all in the characters and the performance. With Peter Mullan as a rage-filled drunk angry at the world but pulled back to human connection by abused middle-class wife Olivia Colman, it’s enough to make it matter.
The Skin I Live In (Spain, dir/scr: Pedro Almodovar) You don’t want to go in to Almodovar’s psycho-sexual melodrama knowing too much—or anything, really—about the characters, the situation or the twisted little plot that unwinds in flashback. Suffice it to say that Almodovar (adapting a novel by Thierry Jonquet) spins his own take of Hitchcock’s Vertigo by way of Eyes Without a Face and his own unique perspective on sexual politics, identity, vengeance and insanity. Wicked stuff: voyeuristic, brutal, emotionally wrought and visually stripped down from Almodovar’s usual fabric party of textures to a clinical-chic austerity. And fun too.
The Day He Arrives (South Korea, dir/scr: Hong Sangsoo) I always forget how funny Hong’s films are until I’m in the middle of their deadpan variations on a by now standard theme of immature, self-involved men and accommodating women fooling themselves into buying into their crap, at least as long as the drinks are being poured. This one, shot digitally in B&W (which gives it a kind of Woody Allen quality), is like Hong abstracted down to his essence and put on endless loop, like “Groundhog Day” as a South Korean mumblecore production: the same friend, restaurant, bar, absent owner, even former student who crosses his path like a stalker in the streets. The only difference: don’t expect any emotion growth from this guy. Kampai!
Dendera (Japan, dir: Tengan Daisuke) Though this is described as a sequel to The Ballad of Narayama, it really more of a reaction to the sensibility of the novel and the film through a geriatric Amazon fantasy of old women, abandoned to die in the elements, turned into survivalist warriors who thrive in their barbarian Shangri-la. I love the elemental quality of the film—the snow-covered winter mountains of yesteryear Japan—the ferocity of the vengeance that drives their will to survive, even the grizzled monster mama bear who declares war in the women’s tribe. But director Tengan Daisuke (son of Narayama director Imamura Shohei) never captures the unforgiving cruelty or the otherworldly beauty that defines Narayama and fails to connect with the lives of the women beyond lip service to the fury at being discarded by the village patriarchy. The metaphor of paradise lost as their communal ideal is bent toward revenge overshadows the texture of the life in the mountains and lives recharged as they reconnect with the power of their experience and their abilities. What’s left is a promising idea in search of a director.
White (South Korea, dirs: Kim Sun and Kim Gok) One might expect a twin brother filmmaking team known for radical political films would come up with something more interesting that this familiar collection of J-horror tropes in the catty, competitive world of pre-fab pop groups of the moment. Part ghost story, part cursed song, part nasty catfight for the pin-up position in a girl pop quartet, it’s as conventional as a pop song crafted for instant obsolescence. A couple of eerie images, sure, but even those are beholden to the evergreen J-horror conventions of faces hidden by long hair, bodies with insect-like locomotion and vicious smiles through bloody faces.