Widescreen "First" Films

in 39th Montreal World Film Festival

by Peter Rist

Over two thirds of the films I saw at the World film festival this year were projected in a widescreen “cinemascope” aspect ratio, approximately 2.35:1. This is a very interesting phenomenon, especially because no fewer than 19 of the 27 fiction features I watched by first time filmmakers were also projected in this ratio. This is surprising because very few digital cameras are equipped with anamorphic lenses, and, in any case the digital projection aspect ratio is always enclosed within 1.85:1. Stated differently, the highest resolution would always be achieved by projecting at close to this New Academy Ratio. I always want to watch films on the “big screen,” and clearly, in the digital age, one doesn’t necessarily get the biggest slice of the image with 2.35:1.                

Presumably, emerging filmmakers are choosing to project their work in “cinemascope” for aesthetic reasons. Perhaps they feel that such a choice is more challenging, although for some of this year’s films, the wide framing appeared arbitrary, and didn’t enhance the viewing experience. When two character scenes are shot conventionally in shot/counter shot or 2-shot frames, there isn’t normally an advantage in stretching the image. But first time Chinese director Qi Wang, and his Korean cinematographer Dong Gyun Kim used their scope frames to actually limit how much can be seen of Shanghai beyond the intimacy of a mother (Shin Akigo) and son (Li Sheng) re-united for her mother’s funeral in Chuyi (China, 2015). Interestingly, all of the film was shot hand-held and not in high definition with the camera often at right angles to one or both of the characters, looking through a car side window or at a restaurant table, where little can be seen in the backgrounds. For Enrico Falcone and Piero Persello’s The Plastic Cardboard Sonata (Italy, 2015), one character, a real estate agent (Andrea Vasone), who becomes increasingly alienated, is invariably filmed in close-up with the background out-of-focus. These claustral, subjective scenes are interspersed by extreme long shot views of an anonymous, rich, high-rise, but somewhat ugly suburb. Less obviously calculated in its use of the wide screen, Rosa Chumbe (Peru, 2015), directed by Jonatan Relayze Chiang, brilliantly combines narrative – an alcoholic policewoman, who plays the slot machines in her spare time (Liliana Trujillo) living with her daughter (Cindy Diaz), an unwed mother – with documentary life on the streets of Lima, often in the same shot. It is the middle of October, during celebrations of the “Lord of Miracles.” The scope frame allows for the dramatic story of two working class women struggling for survival and against one another to be combined with reality. In a brilliant final scene, Rosa is filmed hand-held and up close, carrying her granddaughter, presumed dead through massed streets of religious followers. At the very end of the film, at dawn, on a deserted street, arched with banners, the camera pans right to Rosa slumped in a doorway. After a tale of increasing miseria, there is glimmer of hope… The late, great critic André Bazin would have been impressed by the possibility shown here of extending the “realist” style into the digital, “total cinema” age. 

More good use of the scope frame is to be found in Hoshigaoka Wonderland (Lost and Found, Japan, 2015), directed by Show Yanigisawa, and shot by Keisuke Imamura. Another mother and child tale, Lost and Found, intercuts scenes of Haruto (Tomoya Nakamura) working as a Hoshigaoka station “lost and found” officer with continual flash backs to his childhood, where his mother apparently abandoned him after his electrical engineer father dies. In his job, Haruto imagines who the owners of “found” objects are and the film combines shots of his drawings, with those of a model/toy town, and the objects themselves, to create emotional connections with things that are “lost”. Imamura’s camera is often moving and, perhaps most remarkably, it often looks directly at interior lights or the sun, producing an aura of mystery, and in scenes where snow falls in impossible locations (inside a car, a house), a magical connection is made between past and present. Another widescreen “first film,” not included in the First Films World Competition is an excellent example of image construction. Seven Days (Dong, meaning “winter,” China, 2015), directed by Xing Jian, is virtually a silent film. It has no dialogue, minimal music, natural sound and some effects. Its narrative – an old man’s relationship with a bird and a little boy – is decidedly minimalist, and its black and white images are both spare and beautiful. The director was a painter and photographer before studying filmmaking, and the wintry landscapes are reminiscent of ancient, monochrome, water/ink painting, especially where falling snow eliminates large areas of the frame. (Even now, Chinese painters often leave areas of their canvases blank.) Like Chuyi, less is often more in Seven Days (not coincidentally, the time it took to shoot the film).

Peter Rist