Attending a film festival in Macao, China, isn’t really all that different than going to one in Park City or Toronto. The food is better, to be sure. And the filmmakers and stars stand awkwardly in front of the audience before the movie rather than after, which is frankly an improvement; the Q&A is necessarily vague and mercilessly brief, and they never go to a microphone in the crowd, with a “less a question than a comment” bearer behind it. Oh, and each screening begins with a series of slightly inscrutable casino hotel commercials, but they’re over pretty quickly.
I found myself there for the 4th International Film Festival and Awards, Macao, IFFAM for short – back in the small Chinese administrative region (formerly a Portuguese colony) after first attending the new-ish fest last year. This time, I had favorite restaurants to return to and transportation knowledge to call upon; I was practically a native. (Okay, not really, at all.) But I did some sight-seeing, enjoyed some excellent food, and saw many good films, some of which might not have crossed my path otherwise.
One of the pleasures (and challenges) of international cinema is the need to recalibrate your viewing requirements – both in terms of narrative and rhythm. Such is the case with Mattie Do’s The Long Walk, which is a visually striking, often haunted picture that also grows frustratingly repetitive and grim the longer it goes. But there’s nevertheless much to recommend here; it’s a moody movie, set in a kinda-sorta future (and doing what the best films of those type do, filling in the fascinating blanks of day-to-day living). At a certain point, I simply gave myself over to its dreamlike imagery and pacing, but even then, I was ready to wake up a bit sooner than I did.
Writer/director Gu Xiaogang’s sprawling family chronicle Dwelling in the Funchun Mountains opens with a busy family dinner sequence, full of overlapping, half-overheard conversations and established relationships, and while it’s easy to pick up on those aesthetic cues and dub the 2.5 hours that follow “Altman-eseque,” it’s also not inaccurate. Tracking this extended family’s interpersonal woes and money troubles over the course of two years, Xiaogang’s film is full of astonishing technical achievements and formal mastery. But what sticks is what happens between the people; the interactions and relationships are so genuine, and the arcs of the characters so grounded, that there’s real power in the picture’s quiet powers of observation.
There’s no shortage of corn in Shinobu Yaguchi’s Dance With Me, yet somehow the ‘90s rom-com tropes (clumsy single gal, guilt-tripping mom, impossibly perfect beau) and ‘00s Jim Carrey comedy gimmick (our heroine is hypnotized to sing and dance whenever she hears music) seem less creaky when viewed through an international lens. It falls apart a bit in the middle stretch, when they start piling up unnecessary plot points and extraneous “danger,” all while nearly forgetting the central gag. But the energy of the dance numbers is irresistible, star Ayaka Miyoshi is a delight, and it’s all pretty sunny and colorful and charming.
The title of Takashi Miike’s First Love isn’t entirely misleading – it is a love story, albeit one fleshed out with boxing, prostitution, drug addiction, decapitation, and the Yakuza. You can see what the prolific and frequently brutalist filmmaker is reaching for here, something at least adjacent to Coen Brothers territory, and kudos to him for the ambition. But he doesn’t quite have either the proper comic sensibility or light touch to pull it off. This is not to imply that it doesn’t have its moments (there are many, particularly in the overstuffed climax), and there’s plenty of style, and he seems to have had a great time making it. I just wish his enthusiasm were a bit more infectious.
The narrative of Ming Liang’s Wisdom Tooth is complex, including corporate intrigue, an oil spill, and surreptitious recordings. But it’s essentially one of trust and betrayal, centered on a brother and sister whose close relationship is put to the test by financial desperation and romantic entanglement. Its relationships are established carefully enough to withstand the occasional loss of bearings in the film’s second half – but even when it wavers, the grounded and intimate (sometimes uncomfortably so) lead performance of Lu Xingchen keeps the picture balanced.
A brother and sister are also at the center of Mateo Bendesky’s Family Members (which played at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year), though they aren’t particularly close at the moment, and the circumstances that have put them together – returning to their home to deal with the murder of their mother and stepfather – don’t seem likely to fix that. Of course, it’s a movie, so they do find some solace in dealing with the immediate aftermath of trauma and grief. To the picture’s credit, none of it seems particularly prescribed or formulaic; the moments of connection are fleeting, the characters believably thorny. This is a very good film, and an understated one, its wit as quiet as its insights.
Aardman’s A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon played like gangbusters in Macao, and of course it did – there’s no language barrier. These are basically silent comedies, in conception and execution; you see these filmmakers working through all the possible variations and complications of their scenarios, as Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd (and their gagmen) did. The narrative follows the broad outlines of E.T., with winks to Close Encountersand 2001 (among others), and while it doesn’t surpass the first Shaun movie – there’s nothing nearly as miraculous as that clockwork restaurant sequence – it offers up plenty of laughs and just enough pathos, and its closing scenes are like balm for the soul.
One of the pleasures of attending a distant festival like this is observing the American selections, and how they play to a foreign audience. I certainly found myself fidgeting uncomfortably during portions of A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick’s story of an anti-Nazi objector in WWII-era Austria – particularly at dialogue like, “Oh my wife, what’s happened to our country? To the land we love?” As for the film itself, it’s Malick’s strongest work in years, and though I continue to struggle with the particulars of his current style, the whispers to God at least have some urgency this time around, asking as they are the biggest imaginable questions of morality and free will. The loosey-goosey, go-with-the-flow camerawork varies from fluid to over-the-top, but the imagery is powerful, and he sees this tough story all the way through.
I sort of love the idea of The Lighthouse representing American cinema at a festival abroad, since Robert Eggers’s batshit crazy going-mad-near-the-sea movie probably doesn’t represent much of anything except how bonkers his brain is. Visually disturbing but wildly funny, it’s a movie with much to say about toxic masculinity without being altogether overt about it. Stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are admirably game, willing to go wherever their director pushes them, but this viewer was most impressed by Eggers’s formal discipline – the manipulation of pace is astonishing, as is the degree to which the director tightens his control as his characters lose theirs. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and I mean that as the highest compliment.
Domestic critics have spilled quite a bit of ink on how far Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters falls from the rest of his filmography, but I’m not so sure; much like Soderbergh’s Erin Brokovich, which is none-too-subtly evokes, it seems more like a case of an idiosyncratic filmmaker opening up his toolbox for more standard fare, while maintaining an authorial voice. There are, after all, plenty of echoes of Safe in the story of a chemical company poisoning the population, and the paranoia that seems inevitable when discovering that information. And if it’s a familiar tale, the filmmaker’s tiny human touches (the bad case of the shakes his lead character gets after the big dramatic showdown) and attentiveness to character (the complexity of Tim Robbins’s character arc, for example) give it a new coat of attractive paint.
“You knew your mother would go away some day?” the counselor asks her daughter, and it’s true, they both knew, but they didn’t know it would be like this. The wrenching experience of a working mother leaving her daughter is one that transcends professions, but it’s particularly tough in Alice Winocour’s Proxima, where the mother (Eva Green) is an astronaut, and “going away” means a protracted mission on a space station. The achievable balance of work and home is established early on, but this is a whole other thing, and watching her poor daughter fighting for time during her pre-launch visits breaks your heart. This is a movie, at risk of being too syrupy about it, that knows how it feels when your kid hugs you – and what’s worth risking for that feeling.
Hamish Bennett’s Bellbird comes to us from New Zealand, and as if to confirm that fact, Taika Waititi regular Rachel House shows up in the first five minutes. Its quiet wit and shaggy dog style isn’t far removed from his films (his early ones, at least), but Bennett is working in his own key, telling the story of a farming family – we get a sense immediately of their long-established rituals and routines – and the quiet devastation when the matriarch dies suddenly. It is, most of all, a movie about men who don’t really talk about things (“Mum used to do the talking for both of us”), and realize they’re going to have to, sooner or later; laid-back and charming, and its closing passages are absolutely lovely.
Bouyancy, from Australia, is a grim, merciless affair, dramatizing as it does a story set in the world of forced labor in Southeast Asia. But if you can take such a tough sit, it’s worth it – it’s meticulously constructed and (it seems) authentic, tracking a young man who sneaks away from his home (where he can see his entire miserable future stretched out ahead of him) only to land on a fishing boat, where he’s subjected to horrifying conditions, abuse, and worse. But it’s not just a misery parade; writer/director Rodd Rathjen details how the ruthlessness and evil of his keepers spreads to our protagonist, like an infection, and watching him harden through the course of the story is both difficult and inevitable. Rathjen understands how, in most cases, the logical outcome of treating someone like an animal is that, eventually, they will become one.
The metaphor at the center of The Platform is so on the nose as to make the class commentary of something like Snowpiercer seem comparatively subtle – it’s literally about people living in a leveled “pit,” each level visited by a descending platform of food, and thus the people on the lower levels can only survive if the people above them leave some food behind, which they don’t. But I’m not sure that subtlety is warranted (or effective), at this particular cultural moment, and even if that stuff is A Bit Much, the picture still works on a visceral level; it’s a tightly assembled, blood-spattered, flesh-chewing bit of grisliness, and director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia sure knows how to land a jolt.
My festival experienced ended with Juliette Binoche. The fabulous French thespian came in at the end of IFFAM to give an enlightening talk about her career and craft (choice quote: “stand up for yourself, know where the ‘no is, and know where the ‘yes’ is”), followed by a screening of her new film The Truth. In the film, directed by the Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda, Binoche plays the daughter of a famous actress (the great Catherine Deneuve), home with her family as her mother is publishing her memoirs. “I can’t find any truth in here,” the daughter objects, waving a marked-up copy, to which her mother replies, “I’m an actress, I won’t tell the naked truth. It’s less interesting.” Kore-eda may be working with a language barrier (the film is mostly in French, which he does not speak), but he finds plenty of universal truths, both about acting and about family. Word around the festival circuit this year has deemed this a “minor” work, presumably compared to his last picture, the smash Shoplifters. Let’s clear that up here: it’s modest, but that doesn’t make it minor.