The three colors are blue, white and red. They are the colors of the French flag, of course, and they are appropriated by director Krzysztof Kieslowski along with the themes of the motto they more or less represent: liberty, equality, fraternity. But the films Blue (1993), White (1993) and Red (1994) are not hymns to patriotism or national identity and the Polish Kieslowski hasn’t any predisposition to making a statement at France. It’s better to think of this trilogy in similar terms as his The Decalogue, ten short films in which he reflects upon the Ten Commandments in terms more suggestive than literal. They are about morality in terms of life in Poland in 1989 and it is that vast collage of life experience in that time and place that is so powerful.
After Kieslowski completed The Decalogue, the Berlin Wall fell, Perestroika was introduced in the Soviet Union and communism collapsed in Eastern Europe. The Three Colors trilogy may begin in France but it reaches beyond national borders to Poland and Switzerland to become in part a portrait of the new Europe. And, I would say, a rumination on the mysteries behind the faces of his beautiful leading ladies: Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob.
Binoche stars in Blue as Julie Vignon, the sole survivor of a car wreck that kills her husband, a revered composer, and their young daughter. Initially bereft to the point of suicide, she’s unable to swallow the pills. It’s more a matter of gag reflex than second thoughts but she embraces the reflex as a way to deal with her grief: she simply rejects all emotional connection to her past and her present life, dropping out of contact with everyone she knew and systematically destroying all extant traces of her husband’s unfinished composition, which we learn she was intimately and creatively involved with. (The title of the composition, “Concerto for the Unification of Europe,” suggests the scope of Kieslowski’s trilogy while commenting on Julie’s aggressive isolation.)
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.