Electric Shadows

in 16th Busan International Film Festival

by Lesley Chow

One of the best programs in this year’s BIFF was a sidebar of Portuguese cinema featuring bizarre experiments from the likes of João Nicolau, Manoel de Oliveira and João Pedro Rodrigues. Nicolau’s The Sword and the Rose (A espada e a rosa) is both self-consciously and genuinely strange: it opens with two stunned characters facing the camera, expecting torrents of laughter at their blank expressions. Yet the film is innovative in the way that disparate images “summon” each other in quick succession: typing on a keyboard conjures footage of a rock band, diving into a pool causes a tiny helicopter to be released, and the hero makes a neat leap into a pirate adventure. The Sword and the Rose is a dense, novelistic text which bounces between genres and time periods. Sometimes the quirkiness is a little strained, particularly an encounter in which Manuel (Manuel Mesquita) sings to a tax collector. But Nicolau creates a style which is as jerky and unpredictable as Manuel’s beloved cat.

I was a little disappointed by Edgar Pêra’s film on musician Carlos Paredes, Perpetual Movements (Movimentos perpétuos: cine-tributo a Carlos Paredes). I had been looking forward to an unconventional treatment of biography from this much-touted “neuro-punk” director. The film is overrun with scratches, hazes and jazzy fonts, but all these details camouflage the fact that this is a very traditional documentary: the image is never truly endangered. The visual effects seem like token attempts to rough up the narrative — the equivalent of using coffee stains and burn marks to age a manuscript. The images are a slave to the voiceover, to the extent that when a guitar, a street, or “the people” are mentioned, an illustration pops up a second later. At this point, I don’t think that such a literal interpretation of an artist’s work can hold our interest, especially in comparison with the radical and provocative biographies of the Colombian director Luis Ospina.

Rodrigues’ debut Phantom (O Fantasma) is a sexy gay thriller that lets us feel the attraction and danger of a cruising lifestyle. This film has something in common with the post-Franco cinema of Bigas Luna: there is the sense of a murky world in which the reality of sexual encounters can never be determined. In Phantom, it is hard to see what is happening at any moment: in the shadows, we can’t tell whether sex is occurring, or some other covert action. Sergio (Ricardo Meneses) is a trash collector who is aroused by just about anything: discarded clothing, a shower hose, grinding gears. He constantly pursues satisfaction, and is extremely inventive in creating triggers for himself. A sudden languor in his walk lets us know he’s about to pounce, but is it on a person or an object? For Sergio, an adventure may involve a partner, or it may consist of dressing in latex and writhing over surfaces. In his shining suit, he resembles a kind of gay superhero — a more urgent Spiderman — and cruising becomes a daring sport, almost like parkour or planking.

Just as Cruising (1980) showed us the impossibility of returning to a sedate girlfriend after the thrill of S&M, Phantom draws us into the hot intensity of pick-ups: the excitement, the uncertainty, the threat of violence from homophobes. But without these comically desperate acts, Sergio’s life in Lisbon is drab. Via anonymous sex (especially with policemen and authority figures), the frictions of a harsh world are temporarily directed towards eroticism. Relief from bleakness was also a theme in New Currents, the section for emerging Asian cinema. There were a number of artful exercises in miserabilism: the austere Return to Burma, the Korean drama Choked (Gashi), and Aruna Jayawardana’s August Drizzle, which actually begins with a close-up of a sink. However, August Drizzle managed to create an enigmatic portrait of a town plagued by death — it might be a companion piece to Pablo Larrain’s Post Mortem (2010), another film which tracks a pattern of deaths from the perspective of the mortuary.

The heroine of August Drizzle is Somalata (Chandani Seneviratne), a mortician in a small village in Sri Lanka. This woman is compelling to look at: she has a graven, heavy-jawed beauty and appears unbreakable. When a man shrinks from a cockroach, Somalata coolly squishes it between two fingers. But her strength is going to waste in this town. The local men are careless but calculating, which means that the female characters are doomed to suffer. Almost every woman has a reason to cry, while the men offer platitudes in the face of real pain. The only scene of love-making shows an opaque black panel next to the couple: it is as if this sexual image must be truncated and removed from the film’s picture of society.

In an arresting minimal palette of reds and browns, the characters loom before us like huge, carved objects: no matter how strange their actions are, these people seem iconic. With its scenes of slow-moving life contrasted with an increasingly preposterous number of deaths, this is a distinctive and hypnotic film.

Another New Currents debut was Indonesian director Kamila Andini’s The Mirror Never Lies, a coming-of-age drama enlivened by the suggestive use of mirrors. Like José Luis Guerín and Raúl Ruiz, Andini seems fascinated by mirrors onscreen: the fact that they can provide glimpses of unexpected objects and situations. A mirror literally gives us a rear view or preview of events; it allows past and future scenarios to unfold alongside the present.

Pakis (Gita Novelista) is a twelve-year-old who carries a looking-glass belonging to her missing father, a Sulawesi fisherman. She takes it everywhere, checking her reflection and using it to blind others with its flash. This allows Andini to cast projections onto every frame: the mirror creates an unstable play of light on the mise en scène. However, given the potential for fantastic images to emerge from this device, the film is disappointingly tame. Although it starts off as a fertile source of imagery, the mirror becomes a conventional symbol for Pakis’ self-knowledge. Andini might have been better off following the logic of the film’s title: the idea that mirrors convey an objective truth, making sense of the chaotic moments we see. If a reflected reality is the only genuine one, does that make the rest of the film a shadow play?

The most peculiar work was Hitoshi Kitagawa’s Damn Life (Dami raifu), a film that bored me to tears in its first half, before surprising and provoking me in the second. Initially, its presentation of a “damn life” seemed mediocre rather than grim, with a group of young workers joshing around and cackling at lame jokes. I couldn’t understand the point of these inane stunts; the film did not possess, for instance, the radical tedium of a Harmony Korine or Hong Sang-soo film. I guessed that the director was indifferent to style, or that some kind of deadpan, droll humour was passing me by. However, an hour later Damn Life becomes an oddity on the level of John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974) and Vera Chytilová’s Fruit of Paradise (1969). All of the characters look affectless, but they are motivated by extreme urges. People can turn kill-happy or sex-crazy at the flick of a switch; changing someone’s mood is like resetting a robot. Kitagawa moves easily between a workplace scene and images of the apocalypse: the segue to a psychedelic waterworld is particularly well-handled. It’s a cheerfully nihilistic film: the “terrifying” finale described in the program is a gleeful act of shock comedy.