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Reality Shows: Non fiction at Cannes

 The Venerable W

Documentary films still face an uphill battle in Cannes. Once again, no documentaries show up in the competition. When was the last time a documentary was selected for the competition? Could it have been as far back as 2004, when Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” was put in the competition at the last minute and wound up winning the Palme d’Or?

There were a number of documentaries at the festival, but they are categorized as “Special Screenings” where the organizers crammed most of the non-fiction; or “Cannes Classics” - and those all have to do with cinema. In addition, Critics Week showed one, and three showed up at the Directors Fortnight, all having to do with the seventh art.

Such masters of the documentary film as Claude Lanzmann, Barbet Schroeder and Raymond Depardon all had films in the special screening section. In his film “Napalm,” Lanzmann revisits his own story of politics and possibly lost love in North Korea. Barbet Schroeder asks how Buddhist monks in Burma can wage a religious war against Muslims there in his film “The Venerable W.” Raymond Depardon has been documenting France’s social system, justice system for years. This time he turns his camera on the work of judges who must determine if patients in a Lyon mental institution are well enough to be on their own. And new to the format, Vanessa Redgrave presented “Sea Sorrow,” following the dire tales of war refugees.

As previously mentioned, the Cannes Classics section is not comprised of old, “classic” films, but rather films about film. And filmmakers. This year, the festival presented Mark Kidel’s cursory look at the life of Cary Grant. The film is titled “Becoming Cary Grant” and it purports to investigate the recesses of the star’s past to discover how he morphed from Archie Leach to the suave star. While there are some interesting moments - he grew up believing his mother died and only when he’s a Hollywood star does he discover that she was, in fact, still alive and living in a mental institution in England where his father deposited her when Grant was only 11 years old. And we get into his experiments with LSD - but under the careful supervision of his psychotherapist. What fun is that?

Eugene Jarecki, whose films take harsh looks at the US war on drugs, Henry Kissinger’s duplicitous actions and other serious topics, came to Cannes with his documentary “Promised Land,” in which he drives through America in Elvis Presley’s beloved car. While people ooh and aah, and fawn over the car, Jarecki discovers, through interviews, some of the reasons why we’ve wound up in Trumpland. It’s a sobering look at the American dream, now a nightmare.

Agnes Varda is the doyenne of French non-fiction. And at age 88 she hasn’t slowed down. For her latest film “Visages, Villages,” Varda has teamed up with the young photographer and street artist JR to create a beautiful, moving film that is about ordinary people in France, that is about aging (JR, with Varda’s permission, addresses her failing sight), that is about the past merging with the present (they try to visit Jean-Luc Godard) and with the future - the relationship between the two filmmakers is a lovely sight to behold.

“Visages, Villages” was the most moving film of the festival to this humble viewer. no wonder, then, that it was awarded the prize for best documentary, the L’œil d’or (golden eye). This is only the third year this award has been given out; it was created in 2015. And the award is not presented at the awards ceremony with the Palme d’or. If the festival organizers can be convinced to pay more attention to documentary, and to seriously include these films in the competition, perhaps one day the L’œil d’or will have the respect it - and the films it awards - deserve.

The Shape of Things to Come - Cannes 2017

120 Beats Per Minute

As we await the opening ceremonies like a race horse waiting for the gate to open, or - more to the point - like a stock trader waiting for the opening bell at the stock exchange, we are the opposite of a dying person whose life passes before her eyes. We have the future of film passing before our eyes. Which unknown filmmaker will take a step forward to becoming a household name, at least in the households of cinéastes? And who will take home the many prizes that will be awarded in 12 days.

There are a lot of films to see in the upcoming days as the Cannes Film Festival unspools. While the question of what unknowns will we pay attention to when all is said and done can’t really be answered now (unless you read the publicists’ notes), we can look to the names we know to see what might excite us.

The official competition of the festival doesn’t boast any total unknowns, but there are a number of veterans - and a master or two - in the field. While I can’t say I’m looking forward to all of them, I am intrigued by many.

French director Robin Campillo, who made the touching film ‘Eastern Boys’ a few years back, is in the competition with ‘120 Beats Per Minute,’ which looks like a history of AIDS activitsts in France. Benny and Josh Safdie have made a previous trip to Cannes, but this is the first time they’ll be in the competition. They’re here with ‘Good Time,’ a crime caper starring Robert Pattinson, of the ‘Twilight’ series fame.

Sofia Coppola is back in the competition with her remake of ‘The Beguiled.’ She was previously in the competition with ‘Marie Antoinette,’ which drew lots of attention when it was booed - mostly for it’s take on French history, one would presume. Yorgos Lanthimos is back in the competition with his second film in a row; ‘The Lobster’ was in competition in 2015 and won the jury prize. (Coppola’s last film in Cannes, ‘Bling Ring,’ was relegated to Un Certain Regard.) Lanthimos’ latest film, ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ is sure to be as strange as all his other films.

I’m excited to see Michel Hazanavicius’ competition film ‘Redoubtable,’ about a time in the life of New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard. Not because I’m a fan of Hazanavicius’ films (I was not enamoured of ‘The Artist,’ as most of the rest of the world was), but because I can’t wait to see Louis Garrell play Godard. And I’m excited to see ‘Happy End,’ the latest film by - here’s the master filmmaker - Michael Haneke. Here because I’m pretty much a fan of Haneke, but also because I’m a fan of Jean-Louis Trintignant and will watch him in anything.

Other filmmakers that I like to follow on general principal, as well as their storytelling abilities are Noah Baumbach, Todd Haynes and Lynne Ramsey. Each is in Cannes with a new film: Baumbach’s ‘The Meyerowitz Stories’ centers on an artist (Dustin Hoffman) and his dysfunctional family (who include Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller). Todd Haynes’ ‘Wonderstruck’ seems to merge different stories from different times. Sounds very interesting and I can’t wait to see it. Lynne Ramsay will present ‘You Were Never Really Here,’ with Joaquim Phoenix in the lead role. As strange as he is, Phoenix is a wonderful actor. This is a great combination of talent.

Ruben Ostlund made such a splash with ‘Force Majeure,’ that talk is already starting about his latest film in the competition, ‘The Square.’ So it is a must see. And Hong Sang-soo is so prolific, that one has to rush to see ‘The Day After’ before he makes another film that will super cède this one.

Other celebrated filmmakers are making appearances outside the competition, so I’ll be standing in line at the Debussy Theater to see the latest films by Mathieu Almaric, here as a director again with ‘Barbara,’ which will open the Un Certain Regard section. Also in Un Certain Regard will be Laurent Cantet with ‘L’Atelier.’ Cantet’s work with non professionals is outstanding - he won the Palme d’Or in 2008 with his film “The Class.”

And further down the Croisette, Bruno Dumont and Claire Denis will show their new films. Dumont’s film ‘Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc’ is a must see for me. A movie about a saint? I’m on board. And Denis’ “Un Beau Soleil Interieur” is a must-see for me because, well, Claire Denis.

Many more discoveries will be made over these two weeks, but films by these bold face names are a good place to start.

Places & People: First Look Festival 2017, Part Four



Adventurous and avant-garde cinema just visited my home borough of Queens at the 6th Annual First Look Festival of the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI). Intriguing short and longer American and international films from almost 20 countries were showcased. Programmed by MoMI’s Chief Curator David Schwartz, the two weekends in wintry January brought many of the filmmakers for their New York premieres, some from the French summer film festival now known as the Festival International de Cinéma Marseille, the 27th FIDMarseille, along with the Festival Director Jean-Pierre Rehm. "The Feed" selections reflected its original focus on experimental documentaries/documentary-like, that were set off by compelling new works by masters and creative debuts.

Territory (Territorio)

Director Alexandra Cuesta brought her first short, from a decade ago, and her recent film from FID. Recalling Yesterday (Recordando El Ayer) captured exuberant lives of Ecuadorian immigrants in Jackson Heights, nearby to the Museum’s Astoria location, in a nine minute, 16mm, colorfully impressionistic portrait (in contrast to Frederick Weissman’s cinema verité In Jackson Heights that’s 40 times longer). The richness of their community only takes her seconds to establish, as friends and family greet each other, regular customers shop, and worshippers hurry to church services.

Cuesta brought her camera for her first return to film her native country, from her base at SUNY Binghamton, inspired by following the 1927 Ecuador: A Travel Journal of French artist/poet Henri Michaux. Her HD digital, hour-long film Territorio opens (and leaves) by a small boat, as he arrived, and proceeds to the most rural and isolated areas, from mountains to jungle to ocean, inside places of work, play, and dreaming. But Cuesta’s focus is still on the people, even in these beautiful locales, more intimately and intensely than just a National Geographic photo spread (and there’s no map).

In ever-present heat, the camera stares for extended vignettes at the old, the young, mothers, siblings, friends, market vendors, soccer players wait out a rain delay, and a man digs a well. Filming alone and catching the ambient sound where she was invited in, a few are looking at her, but most are busy watching something or someone else, whether a TV, teammates, a baby, cute boys, or customers. Eschewing the rigidity of avant-garde filmmakers who time their camera shots of locales, she lets the situations observed play out in suspense if there will be a climax. Usually there isn’t – just enjoy the people-watching. She stressed in her Q & A: ”I’m not exoticizing. It’s my country.” I appreciated the close looks at faces and their everyday context, but I didn’t perceive what she called “imaginary geographies”, but perhaps those were clearer when an accompanying art installation is included at other locales.


booneEver shop at a farmers market and think you’d just like to chuck the city and go work on an organic farm? I have cousins who’ve done that, and so did director Christopher LaMarca. But in following laconic MichaelMookieMoss to his family-owned Boone’s goat farm in southern Oregon with friends and committed agricultural activists, Dana Kristal and Zachary Jasper-Miller, he also brought his camera. His time investment as a farming apprentice set the ground work for knowing where and when to point his cameras to follow day by day (night by night) a year’s seasonal cycles of the hard labor and never-ending chores it takes to farm, with nothing re-staged, no re-takes, and very little explanatory dialogue. Sunrise to sundown, and many nights when the goats are in labor or a storm threatens, in the muck and the dirt. The audience feels as exhausted as they do, though we are spared the smells, but the ambient sounds plunge you in. LaMarca explained in the Q & A his goal was “for the camera to disappear”.

Inspired by the experiential approach of Lucien Castaing-Taylor at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, such as sheep ranchers Sweetgrass (2009) and fishermen in Leviathan (2012) (rather than the recent cerebral intellectual approach of Tilda Swinton’s appreciation of “peasant” farming in The Seasons In Quincy: Four Portraits Of John Berger), the camera plunges into the daily chores of the farmers. From milking, planting and harvesting, always dealing with living nature, whether the trees or the goats and dogs. Though this is not a “how-to”/educational type film, we also get brief glimpses into crafting goat cheese manufacture, before loading the containers are loaded onto the truck for the farmers market.

The 75 minutes were whittled down from 500 hours of footage LaMarca sent off to editor/producer Katrina Taylor (who regularly advised on what was needed), and I would have liked to see more, even keeping in the same impressionistic style. No Farm-Aid PSA or advocacy fundraiser, a scroll at the end provides basic background information on the farm’s financial difficulties with some bare statements about the regulatory issues they faced in marketing non-pasteurized, organic goat cheese through their Siskiyou Crest Goat Dairy. While the documentary may be a bit too artsy and frank about animal life and death for young children (and chicken flicking, as my grandma used to call it), it is a usefully unromantic portrait for a general audience of the reality behind the locally-sourced agriculture movement. Grasshopper Films will release Boone in theaters after its festival run.


Nathan Truesdell is a prominent documentary producer and cinematographer (We Always Lie To Strangers) and is active in the non-fiction community. But his new six-minute film isn’t getting into festivals, with Opening Night placement in First Look Fest, just from his connections or for mocking the inanity of local TV news with a montage of clips. His edit of video clips from Cleveland, OH in 1986 hilariously deflates Midwestern Rust Belt empty boosterism in the tale of what happened when the community over-enthusiastically tried a common publicity gimmick to beat a Guinness World Record for an uncommon activity – blowing up and releasing balloons.

A Model Family in a Model Home

Artist/filmmaker Zoe Beloff introduced her vividly educational and insightful 22 minute, 16 mm short with theatrical relish. Part of a larger multi-media project with art installations and performance pieces, her whole work is detailed, with historical references, drawings, and photographs from international archives, in her beautifully illustrated new book A World Re-drawn: Eisenstein and Brecht in Hollywood.

In a situation rich in irony, both Marxist Russian director Sergei Eisenstein in the 1930’s and German playwright Bertolt Brecht in the 1940’s were exiled in capitalist Los Angeles to work on movies, the engine of America’s dream factory for suburban development. Finding a marvelous selection of archival visual material to supplement her amusing puppets reading history, Beloff’s film contrasts Brecht’s 1947 testimony before HUAC (The House Un-American Activities Committee), in clips plummily narrated by Eric Bentley, with the titular film scenario from his journals, based on a 1941 Life Magazine article “A Model Family in a Model Home”, about a competition-winning family on exhibit at the State Fair as “Ohio’s Typical Farm Family”. Even as she slips in newsreel images of what war-ravaged Europe looked like at this same time, she found additional photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt (then a Life staff photographer), as well as sunny home movies and ads in The Columbus Dispatch, to compare to promotional films that offered ups how rural America could have selected alternative homeownership, through the National Rural Electrical Cooperative or a company touting affordable pre-fab houses in Homes Unlimited (Buckminster Fuller promoted this kind of technological solution, though she doesn’t include his “Dymaxion House” plans).

In the “Fictitious Capital” conclusion, the view is of malled America, like in Jem Cohen’s Chain (2004) but with a visual emphasis on banks. The closing song “Supply and Demand” beginning “The people need homes. .”, based on Brecht’s The Measures Taken as updated by Hannah Temple, Beloff wonderfully makes the cinematic connection between this past and today’s housing finance crisis.

Two Looks at Croatia

Two shorts were surprising and sympathetic glimpses at the lives of women young and old in Croatia. In just a half hour, documentarian Nebojsa Slijepcevic in Something About Life (Nesto o zivotu) (U.S. Premiere) is able to get us to begin to understand rebellious fourteen-year-old Ivana in a residence for juvenile delinquent girls. Even as the social workers try to get her involved in group activities like drumming, her family home may have been most of her problem.

With A Short Family Film (Kratki obiteljski film), Igor Bezinovic comes close to making fun of the genre, like the Documentary Now series does, where he and his documentary crew come to a village and the residents try to put their best foot forward, only to fall flat on their faces. Over 20 minutes, Marica chattily tours the crew around her house, but can’t help defending why she deserves to live there on parole -- as long as her former daughter-in-law stays away. As amusing as their family squabbles are, the director may be laughing at her, too.

Both of these shorts were re-shown in the Festival’s “Film After Film” shorts programs over the holiday weekend, giving more audiences an opportunity to see the excellent shorts selections.

Two For Cinéphiles

Helmut Berger, Actor

Helmut BergerAmerican art house movie fans may wonder: “Whatever happened to Helmut Berger?” Berger was the devilishly handsome star of Vittoria de Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970) and muse/lover of Luchino Visconti, as seen in such films as The Damned from 1969 (that MoMI showed in 35mm the same day for those who had never seen him in his prime). Director Andreas Horvath said in the Q & A that Austrians don’t wonder about their most famous movie star because he’s a regular on their TV, from talk shows to “reality” shows like I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! So Berger in his 70’s is used to playing a version of himself for cameras that he wants the public to see: an acerbic louche lush who name-drops glamorous designers (he did play the aged version of Saint Laurent in Bertrand Bonello’s recent bio-pic), air kisses European demi-royalty at film festivals, and slips out titillating gossip about actors and actresses he’s known, in many ways.

In unusual personal involvement for his documentaries, Horvath gets more and more frustrated from months and months of filming, until Berger provokes blow-ups with insults and stalling on substance amidst his wheedling demands for suitable glamorous hotel settings. Yet Horvath keeps tape rolling for audio and contextual revelations, especially Berger’s late night telephone calls where he plans the scenes and structure of the documentary – which Horvath pretty much follows, shrugging that Berger was pretty much the director (including when masturbating for the camera).

But Horvath cleverly gets beyond that calculated reality TV image by restlessly poking around Berger’s pitiful living conditions in his late mother’s crumbling apartment where large signed photos of the likes of beautiful co-stars Romy Schneider look over half-empty booze glasses and boxes of pills. The camera follows Berger’s long-time housekeeper Viola Techt (the film is dedicated to her memory) as she systematically cleans up the mess and sympathetically talks on about his childhood with a difficult mother and his return to her in her last years. While Berger does not have a face to support Norma Desmond’s definition of a movie star, he does have a personality that fills the screen.

How I Fell in Love with Eva Ras (Kako Sam Se Zaljubio U Evu Ras/Como Me Apaixonei por Eva Ras)

The lengthy making-of discussion of the Helmut Berger doc was so illuminating that I unfortunately missed Serbian director Ognjen Glavonic’s Depth Two examination of a mass crime during the Balkans’ war. But I did get to feel I saw the cinematic history of another part of the former Yugoslavia in director André Gil Mata’s debut feature, in its North American Premiere.

how I fellSena may be an actual woman projectionist in Sarajevo so this film could be categorized with “So Real It Could Be Nonfiction”; septuagenarian Sena Mujanovic has appeared in documentaries about cinema and daily life in her native city. As this projectionist, she lives in a basement apartment of an old movie theater, timing around the movie schedule her meals, placid interactions with a tenant, the cashier, adult daughter, babysitting her young grandchild, and other visitors, with whom she shares traditional foods. The warmth of the projector even provides heat to dry her laundry hanging around it.

The presumably fictional context is the premise that this theater only shows a set of old movies, the same ones every day on the same schedule by the big clock, all films made about a girl growing up in that area, whose experience at that age parallels what Sena may have gone through for almost all of the existence of Yugoslavia, and since its dissolution. So the first film clips look to be from the Partisan Film genre during the 1960s/1970s about heroic locals defeating the Nazis. Several, but not all, feature the actress Eva Ras, evidently a favorite of Portuguse-born Gil Mata’s from much time spent in a movie theater like this one. (He seems to have that in common with old-movie loving directors like Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino). Ras made a couple of films for director Dušan Makavejev that are included in the Criterion Collection (“Free Radical - Eclipse Series 18”). I recognized WR: Mysteries of the Organism, the 1971 political satire of Wilhem Reich’s theory of sexual repression applied to relations with the USSR, and Emir Kusturica’s When Father Was Away On Business (1985) about post-Stalinist Communism (because it starred Mira Fulan later of Babylon 5). While I could tell from the credits that the selections were about from the 1960’s to the 1990’s, I was sorry I couldn’t note or find more specifics on the films, especially the ones about the civil war years.

While Sena muses that there is still an audience for these old movies, she is a practical woman living in the present and the light and noise from the big projector manages not to be drenched in sentimental nostalgia.

I regretted that the conflicting schedule this year caused me to miss other films in the series, especially ones where the filmmakers attended, including Toronto filmmaker Kazik Radwanksi bringing his second feature How Heavy This Hammer. I only gave up on one - César Vayssié’s over-long, over-intellectual French political satire UFE (Unfilmévénement) – and I lasted longer than most everyone else in the audience. John Wilson’s presentation of his New York shorts attracted a youthful sell-out crowd that wasn’t all friends and family. I did not have a chance to sample the Festival’s branching out into non-film offerings of audio experiments, virtual reality experiences, as well as a multiplayer video game.

I certainly look forward to reporting on the 7th Annual First Look Festival in January 2018.


Re-staged Reality: First Look Festival Part Three

Between Fences

Adventurous and avant-garde cinema just visited my home borough of Queens at the 6th Annual First Look Festival of the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI). Intriguing short and longer American and international films from almost 20 countries were showcased. Programmed by MoMI’s Chief Curator David Schwartz, the two weekends in wintry January brought many of the filmmakers for their New York premieres, some from the French summer film festival now known as the Festival International de Cinéma Marseille, the 27th FIDMarseille, along with the Festival Director Jean-Pierre Rehm. "The Feed" selections reflected its original focus on experimental documentaries/documentary-like, that were set off by compelling new works by masters and creative debuts.

Re-staging Reality & Toggling Between Reality and Fiction

Between Fences (Bein gderot)
In two films, powerless people’s experiences are theatrically re-enacted to bring attention to their political invisibility.  Through Between Fences (Bein gderot), Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi, who explored his Arab roots as the son of Mizrahi immigrants with an Israeli Arab in Once I Entered a Garden (Nichnasti pa'am lagan) (2012), movingly documents the efforts of theater director Chen Alon (who is active in the “forgiveness projects”  as seen in the recent documentary Disturbing The Peace) to reach out to African migrants caught in the No Man’s Land of making it to Israel.  The two artists hope to both break the tedium of endless imprisonment through a theater workshop and get word out to liberal Israelis about their risky treks from oppressive Eritrea and war-torn Sudan into limbo immigration status.  Their approach is based on Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed that now creates interactive theater in communities “facing oppression” in over 70 countries.  Language and cultural barriers have to be broached, and trust established for the Africans to confide their stories while not risking their (usually unsuccessful) asylum claims. 

Silencio 550x238-detail-main
But that’s easy compared to the constant interference of the Israeli authorities in the migrants’ situation.  Pressured by international and domestic politics to stop just turning African “infiltrators” back into the desert, the government has rounded up several thousand illegal migrants into the prison service’s desolate Holot (Sands) Detention Center in the Negev, as their court cases grind on to determine if they are refugees.  (The Africans’ frame of reference is to call it a refugee camp.)  Frustrated at their lack of rights and resolution, the migrants stage demonstrations and speak out forcefully on the lousy conditions.  The theater director encourages them to comically imitate their racist and peremptory guards, then to instruct Israeli women volunteers to act out those roles for performance.  Interstitial scrolls update the confusing external news about frustrating Supreme Court orders for release of those held for over a year who can’t be repatriated, but sometimes the migrants get rounded up again if they end up homeless in Tel Aviv.
Despite the necessarily disjointed narrative of shifting participants and doubts if the theatrical project can be completed, Mograbi humanistically captures each man’s individual personality by convincing them they do have supportive allies in a country that used to have an idealistic image for ingathering refugees.  The documentary was released theatrically in France this month as Entre Les Frontières.  With its immediate relevance, it should be seen further; Torch Films is handling non-theatrical distribution.  I was sorry that the festival’s conflicting film schedule meant I had to miss German director Philip Scheffner’s Havari, another film that looks at the refugee crisis, by boat.

French painter Christophe Bisson began making socially conscious documentary portraits in 2008Silêncio recalls the look of Andy Guérif’s Maestà at last year’s Festival in re-enacting an art historical classic.  He sets homeless men and women of the advocacy organization The Voices of Silence in several formal tableaux vivants within the shadows of dark rooms in a ruined palace in Porto, Portugal.  Perhaps the problem was confusing subtitles, but the disappearing audience could not tell if their recitations were personal experiences or literary excerpts.  What was evidently supposed to be a humanizing portrait seemed like an European intellectual exercise.

Animals Under Anaesthesia: Speculations on the Dreamlife of Beasts
Filmmaking (and life) partners Brian Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky have been collaborating at the intersection of fiction and non-fiction films for a decade, since art school.  Self-professed “big animal lovers”, their production company is Pigeon Projects and their fiction feature Francine (2012) was set in a pet shop – where they first filmed an anesthetized cat.  Their striking looking 14-minute short focuses on animals when they look from the outside at their most restricted, but presumably are at their most free in their interior lives.  The viewpoints creatively shift between the excruciating documentary realism of veterinary operating rooms to the thoughts of a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and a pig, in case you’ve wondered about how to prepare swine for surgery.  (All the vet staff are very caring.)  Through the pets’ distorted lenses at their eyes level, they free associate sights and sounds as the anesthetic takes hold.  More like Denis Côté’s Bestiary (2012) than last year’s cartoon The Secret Life of Pets.  The directors described it in the Q & A as: “anthropomorphizing, absurdity, pseudo-science, and horror”.  

Out There
Director Takehiro Ito distinctively explores the impact of American culture on Tokyo and Taiwan through fact and fiction, memory and future, nostalgia and millennial hipness, color and black-and white, in a dizzying array of cinematographic styles.  What started out as a documentary about the late Taiwanese director Edward Yang morphed into a collaboration with neophyte actor Chun Chih Ma to see his native Taiwan through his and his family’s eyes, then return to Tokyo to enact a fictional romance with a pretty young woman named Ayako (played by Ayu Kitaura).  Sound complicated?  The long prologue is the audition where the director tries to explain this concept to the young man while eliciting his personal background and philosophical attitudes to shape the story.  His anxious producer certainly doesn’t buy into the vague ideas.

out there
In oral history particularly relevant with Taiwan back in the news, Ma interviews his parents, apparently for the first time, about their childhoods on the island after their family had left the mainland at the end of the Chinese civil war.  In the 1950’s, Americans had a dominating presence replacing Japan’s occupation.  His mother, in tight close-ups, enthuses about her adolescence spent hanging around an American Army base full of modern facilities, rock ‘n’ roll, and Hollywood movies.  Many family and friends couldn’t wait to emigrate, and his parents remind Ma, with fraught emotion, how a relative convinced them to leave him in America for school.  They draw out his hesitant confession about his unhappiness there.  His father speaks sorrowfully about how different their post 9/11 visit was, in a country now suspicious of foreigners, particularly non-white ones.  Their contrasting relationships with the U.S. are still in mind in a surprisingly powerful tour of the now abandoned, neglected, and leaking base in what looks like the middle of downtown Taipei, in the slow-gliding architectural cinematography style of Heinz Emigholz.  This also makes a strong visual statement about America’s changing foreign policy priorities from the 20th to 21st centuries.

Shifting between these images of Taipei, the director’s native Tokyo looks like it could be restless Ma’s fictional future, in contrast to Japan’s real economic stagnation.  Even mostly in retro black-and-white with electronica score and little story-line, it is a place where he can rollerblade fast and freely at night, stroll down narrow streets into the suddenly colorful bright lights of downtown.  He takes out his ear buds long enough to meet a pretty girl on a picturesque bridge to walk the seashore together.  But like seemingly everything else in his life, that’s left unresolved in more alluring visual symbols than substance.

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