Thursday, October 9, 2008

PIFF: Day Four

Set in a coal mining town in western China, Zhang Chi's debut feature The Shaft is divided into three segments, each following a different member of the same family. Jingshui (Zheng Loaqain), a young woman who works at the mines, wants to get away but her boyfriend, Daming (Li Chen), says with resignation that mining is all he knows how to do. When Jingshui is promoted to safety monitor, rumors begin to circulate that she's having an affair with the boss. Meanwhile, an aunt pressures her to marry a rich man who lives in a nearby city. The second and longest segment follows Jingshui's brother, Jingsheng (Huang Xuan), a high school drop-out who dreams of being a pop star. When he goes to a conservatory to enroll in singing lessons, he's told he needs to pay eight hundred yuan. "It costs that much?" asks Jingsheng. "Singing is an art." The last part expands the scope of the film to encompass, not only Jingshui and Jingshen, but their father, Baogen (Luo Deyuan), as well. In its setting, its focus on young lovers and Zhang's long take style, the film was visibly influenced by the work of Jia Zhang-ke.

Shot on video blown up to 35mm, sometimes the quality of the video is inadequate for what Zhang is trying to achieve stylistically. As a director, he has a strong sense of how to arrange figures in a landscape (the last sequence is a dead ringer for Abbas Kiarostami's Life, and Nothing More... [1991]), but the cinematography is at times distractingly pixelated. Luckily, Zhang's style isn't as severe as Jia's (nor is it as playful, for that matter), and in the second segment he introduces more medium shots and close-ups as well as more camera movement, most of it handheld. A highly promising first feature, The Shaft announces Zhang as a director to look for in the future.

In contrast with The Shaft, Courtney Hunt's Frozen River was also shot on video blown up to 35mm, but for what Hunt wants to achieve, the camera she uses is entirely adequate for--and perhaps, far above--what she actually does with it. The film would lose nothing if it were shot on analogue video, apart from a second unit shot of the titular river shot in extreme shallow focus with the focal point gradually moving out across the ice. This rare concession to cinema as a photographic medium notwithstanding, Hunt seems to regard video merely as a means of recording content rather than mediating it.

A grim thriller about human trafficking set in upstate New York, its heroine, Ray (Melissa Leo), is a mother of two who works at the Yankee One Dollar. As the film opens, her husband (never seen), a gambling addict, has taken off with the four thousand in cash she needed to make the bubble payment on a new double wide. (Her current trailer doesn't have proper insulation, so the pipes freeze in the winter.) Searching for her husband on a First Nations reserve, she meets Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman who's stolen her husband's car, and gets involved in an illegal smuggling operation that transports Chinese across the Canada-US border. The film is an effective piece of storytelling, moving from one crisis to another.

After watching Wendy and Lucy, Heather and I wondered if it might be more interesting to Koreans who don't know know a lot about life in America. Frozen River received the most applause of any film I saw at PIFF this year, but that might simply be because it has a suspenseful storyline. Personally, I was a bit disappointed that it didn't show more of what life is like on a First Nations reserve, a subject that white North Americans don't know much about. Still, the film is never less than gripping and the performances by the two leads are superb, so for that it's worth seeing.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been making films since the 1970s, mostly documentaries for Belgian TV, but they only became well known internationally with La Promesse (1996), their third feature after Falsch (1987) and Je pense à vous (1992). La Promesse was the first film of theirs I saw, and it took me completely by surprise. If their three subsequent films--Rosetta (1999), Le Fils (2002) and L'Enfant (2005)--lack the same thrill of discovery, all three are nonetheless gripping and visceral dramas at a uniformly high standard of quality.

Le Silence de Lorna isn't as harrowing as the Dardennes' previous films, and they seem to know this as the handheld camerawork is comparatively relaxed and steady. It's about an Albanian woman, Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), who marries a Belgian drug addict, Claudy (Jérémie Renier), to get citizenship. After she gets her citizenship card, she needs a divorce so she can marry a Russian who also wants Belgian citizenship. She asks Claudy to hit her in order to speed up the process, but he doesn't want to have battery on his record. A junkie and a thief is one thing, but a wife beater is something else entirely. Though compelling, the film lacks the urgency of L'Enfant in which Renier played a teenager who sells his newborn son on the black market. It's a good film by filmmakers from whom we've come to expect greatness.

Götz Spielmann's Revanche is a curiously laid back film about sex workers, bank robberies and revenge. Alex (Johannes Krisch) works in a Vienna brothel where his Ukrainian girlfriend, Tamara (Irina Potapenko), is employed as a prostitute. Her pimp, Konecny (Hanno Pöschl), wants to move her into an apartment where she can service businessmen and politicians. To me this sounds like a promotion, but Tamara turns down the offer and Alex helps her escape from her hotel room. In a small town in the country, Alex robs a bank, leaving Tamara sitting in a parked car. Coincidentally, Robert (Andreas Lust), a police officer, happens to be walking by and notices the illegally parked car. After the robbery, Alex hides out at his father's farm not far from the town. Robert and his wife, Susanne (Ursula Strauss), live nearby and Alex begins to think of revenge. What he doesn't know is that Robert is overcome with guilt. Like Atom Egoyan's Adoration, the film shows how anger can blind us to the pain of others.

The comparison with Frozen River is instructive. In that film, Ray and Lila commit a crime and have to face the consequences. Here, there's never any suspense about whether or not Alex will be caught for robbing the bank. (We never see the police following leads or doing much of anything.) The pace is leisurely and the ending deliberately anti-climatic. Its focus is on character more than plot, and the real meat of the film are the interactions between Alex and Susanne. As a result, the story is never as harrowing.

However, it's a much more attractive film than Frozen River, using high contrast, desaturated film stock that pushes the lights to pure white and the darks to pure black. This is a movie that could only have been shot on film.

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