Synecdoche for Sadness

in 39th Hong Kong International Film Festival

by Richard Bolisay

Locals and guests attending the 38th Hong Kong International Film Festival are greeted by cold weather and rain showers as they flock to several theaters around the city, but this comforting chill only gives them every possible reason to seek the warmth of movies. Fortunately, the festival offers a number of interesting titles, and though some of them may be a bit tepid or heavyhanded, the assortment of themes and variety of talent present in every section of the event, from competition entries and gala screenings to retrospectives and restored classics, are enough to make its two-week run a truly remarkable experience.

In every gathering like this, it always feels reassuring to be in the company of young filmmakers. They may be too impatient and clever for their own good, but their views on the many facets of human experience (from the all-encompassing themes of life, love, and suffering to the consequences of historical events, social issues, and political struggle) are hard to ignore. This year, the entries are a mixed bag, and although some films are obviously better than others, the vulnerable ones provide an attractive source of discussion.

The four Chinese films in competition tend toward the heavy side and are enveloped in an intense mood of longing and dissatisfaction, which makes their characters susceptible to tragic ends. Almost four years after the highly regarded Sun Spots, Heng Yang releases Lake August (Na Pian Hu Shui), whose beauty is distinguished by its stark bleakness. Heng creates this vast space where emotions drift between screen and viewer. The faces of his characters are hard to remember — most of the time they are either looking away or shot from a distance — and this adds to the film’s perplexingly measured movement. In all its finery and luxuriousness, Lake August never boils: It just keeps on simmering until it loses heat.

Like Heng’s film, Exit, by Chienn Hsiang does not require larger-than-life plots and complex schemes. The effect it’s after is one of persistence and repetition, confining its female lead in restricted environments to capture her mental and emotional pain. The film is bursting with ache and anger, but Chienn, despite being able to bring Chen Hsiang-Chyi’s disquieting prowess as an actor to the surface, fails to make a compelling picture, oftentimes burning things too long and to little avail. Shadow Days (Gui Ri Zi) by Zhao Dayong follows a distinct rhythm and pace, but what draws the viewer to it is the eerie atmosphere of its setting, which looks and feels like a ghost town, where violence is committed on a daily basis, and where having ideals is dangerous. Its gloominess is emphasized for a good reason, but unfortunately it offers no consolation.

The youngest filmmaker in the lineup is 21-year-old Zhou Hao, who participated in this year’s Berlinale with his first feature, The Night (Ye). Shot mostly in an alley where two hookers share a space and talk about the particulars of their trade, the film renders prostitution unapologetically, focusing instead on a young man’s vanity and his small pleasures. That The Night is actually a student work is both a boon and bane — its casual approach to the dangers of commercial sex and its characters’ resignation to such a life may be too underhandled, but the plainness of its attitude reflects a much more problematic youth culture, raising concerns and perspectives that lessen the film’s monotony and refract its simplified values.

These films share an overwhelming feeling of discontentment, likely brought about by the strands of blatant and subtle violence that pervade Asian culture, so it’s refreshing to watch a number of entries, which, despite sharing the anguish and despair of the present-day world, are inclined to be more experimental. Although these formal challenges don’t often succeed, their efforts are worth mentioning. For instance, 40 Days of Silence (Chilla), by Saodat Ismailova, is filled with breathtaking shots of barren landscapes, providing a stark contrast to the tribulations felt by its female characters. One easily feels its denseness, the undercurrent that moves it and the need for restraint, but the film lacks a persuasive hook that could have made it engaging, and toward the end the viewer feels more confounded than convinced.

Castanha, by Brazilian filmmaker Davi Pretto, blends documentary and fiction freely. At its center is João Carlos Castanha, an actor who appears in small plays and works at night as a cross-dresser in gay bars. He lives with his mother, with whom his relationship exudes a mix of coldness and warmth that’s difficult to describe, just like his life. The film’s strength lies in its intricate character study — in several scenes, a close-up of his face achieves a staggering effect, conveying the many years of pain — and Pretto’s disciplined writing reveals so much by showing less. Interest in the film, however, is largely dependent on the viewer’s interest in Castanha himself, for everything in it is anchored to his moods and actions.

In Josephine Decker’s rather disconcerting Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, the focus is on a young lady named Sarah who lives on a farm with a father figure. The arrival of a new farmhand makes little impression on them at the onset, but he finds it hard to resist his sexual attraction to Sarah, which leads to the film’s rough climax and an even rougher rub at the end. Although it has moments that make a startling impact, the film is let down by a style that draws too much attention to itself, and by its determination to make its influences and allusions obvious, relying so much on juxtaposition and quick transitions, which, to a discerning viewer, only emphasizes the mustiness of its story.

Such problems are overcome by Villa 69, a family drama directed by Egyptian filmmaker Ayten Amin, by taking the conventional route. It fleshes out the vexing eccentricities of its lead character, a middle-aged, hot-tempered man with fine taste in the arts, by putting him in situations that test his patience, so when it’s revealed that he’s about to kick the bucket, the humor cuts deeper. What it lacks in innovation is compensated for by a good ear for dialogue. Although nothing in it is exceptional, one is easily affected by its modesty and sentimentality, well maintained until the end.

The diversity of styles and subjects makes it difficult to assess the films and discuss their merits in general contexts, but the viewer will always have his personal inclinations, and the strongest entries, upon careful deliberation, are those with a keen sense of conviction in delivering their material, films defined by a stubborn need to reach their desired end with as little compromise as possible. Incidentally, two of them are Japanese and run for more than two hours, this freedom in length allowing the directors to build a stronger mood and arrive at an interestingly divisive result.

Forma, by Sakamoto Ayumi, takes it time — there is a tendency to feel frustrated about its pace and get disappointed with how the many quiet moments of the film, packed with tension between its two female characters, lead only to a 24-minute single take whose portions have already been shown to the audience. But Sakamoto prefers a slow burn, and the fire coming out from its edges smolders, slowly but forcefully, and its black smoke reeks of reflections on the cruelty of human relationships. There permeates a formidable sense of mystery while watching it, that itch to know Ayako’s motivations, but Sakamoto lays all the cards with maddening (and exacting) faintness, forcing the viewer to absorb every detail she puts in place and the consequences it entails. For a film without any blood or exchange of blows, Forma is unusually violent, the broad maturity of which confirms Sakamoto’s talent and promise.

A colleague mentioned that Japanese films tend to be longer than the standard running time because their audience is curiously demanding, and it’s obvious that most of these movies receiving attention in the festival circuit are made with this perspective in mind. Like Forma, The Tale of Iya (Iya Monogatari) is flawed and drawn out, but that only makes it all the more wonderful. Shooting in 35mm, director Tsuta Tetsuichiro pays tribute not only to the beautiful landscapes of Iya, having grown up in a town next to it, but also to the smallness and peacefulness of life in the countryside, disturbed by infrastructure and modern ideas, its people either dying or migrating to the city. One can feel Tsuta’s fondness for the region, as he fills his work with images showing its exquisite decay, making the audience imagine what it once was; but his primary concern is the damage being done to its residents and their resources, and how hard it is to survive in a world that changes every minute, how those people who would rather lead a simple life are not spared from the harsh aftermath of progress.

Shifting freely between dreams and realities (and knowing which is which is hardly important in the grand scheme of things), The Tale of Iya understands its ambition. Although there are sequences that don’t work, parts that are driven only by childish indulgence, those that do are suffused with frightening beauty and insight, enough to make a sweeping effect. Rina Takeda, who is known for her roles in action movies, is given the task of carrying the film all the way through and she does it with grace and self-possession. Despite the change of seasons, the look on her face bears the same sadness, and one is assured that this kind of solitude never goes away wherever she is.

By far the finest performance among the competing films is given by 11-year-old Ramasan Minkailov, whose ability to make his presence and dialogues look and sound natural is totally indispensable, especially in the context of a film that brings to light the war in Chechnya without showing it. It’s impossible to appreciate Macondo, directed by Iranian filmmaker Sudabeh Mortezai, without singling him out, for the maturity and understanding he puts into the role, at such a young and tender age, is nothing short of splendid. Onscreen he portrays a kid steeled by time and early exposure to the severity of life, as though upon learning that his father died in war he made it a point to act as the head of the family, helping his mother expedite their refugee status in Austria and take care of his two little sisters. Through Minkailov’s simple gestures, facial expressions, instinctive delivery and timing, the film, without losing its specificity, is able to elicit humanity even in seemingly trivial situations and connect its struggle with the grander predicaments of mankind, experienced by families caught in unfortunate states of affairs.

This is not to say that Macondo is entirely dependent on its young actor. Mortezai has managed to capture the life of asylum seekers on the outskirts of Vienna without glamorizing or condescending to their difficulties, showing how they adapt to their present conditions without giving up their own customs and beliefs. This owes to her experience in documentary filmmaking, and such an approach works well in Macondo because it avoids the typical bait of treating marginalized communities as something “different.” Instead, she illuminates the contradictories felt by a child forced to grow up quickly in his formative years. This is Mortezai’s first feature-length, and at 46, it is likely that her years of life experience are instrumental in allowing her to create a mature and perceptive piece of work. The sensitivity that she shows to the people of Macondo, and by extension to the millions of refugees in the world displaced due to inopportune reasons, is inspiring.

The appeal of 10 Minutes, by South Korean filmmaker Lee Yong-seung, is extensive — the hustle and bustle takes place in a workplace, and this urban setting works to its advantage — but despite this familiarity, there remains something distinctly Korean about it, especially when it comes to the lead character’s relationships with his family and coworkers.

Aside from having to deal with his parents’ mounting debt and his brother’s needs at school, Ho-chan is burdened by his failure to pass the exam to become a professional television producer. His experiences as an intern have given him hope, and the moment he is attracted to his job’s seeming stability he learns its ins and outs the hard way. While the drama may be conventional and predictable, 10 Minutes is by all means powerful and adequate, speaking on behalf of many young people around the world who pass through this vicious circle every day. Lee doesn’t make hasty generalizations: By displaying the dynamics of a cutthroat office environment, he is able to assert credible arguments on the extreme hardships faced by young people in Korea. Ho-chan’s work and family relationships are a shambles — so where else can he go? Lee offers no clear answers, but his questions are all plain and unambiguous.

The deliberation to determine which film to award the FIPRESCI prize is made difficult by the fact that no special mentions will be given, meaning the three jury members must agree on courteous and acceptable terms on one film and show firmness despite the unpleasant feeling of not being able to commend other deserving works. After a thorough discussion, it was decided that the FIPRESCI prize will be presented to 10 Minutes.

Edited by José Teodoro