Posts Tagged ‘Burrowing’

BIFF, Day Seven: Still Walking

October 29, 2009

Today we are travelling to South America and Japan. One journey I will take only once, the other I can’t wait to take again.
The Colombian road movie Los Viajes del Viento has two strengths that make up for many of its conventional traits: It never descends into a too typical South American sentimentality and it has the luxury of taking place in a geography that is seldom seen on films. The story is about an old, taciturn accordion master who recently lost his wife, and the young boy who may be his son. The old master wants to travel across the entire country in order to give back his accordion to his master. As legend will have it, he once won the instrument in a duel with the devil. The boy sees apprenticeship with the old man as his only possibility to make something of himself and thus follows his unwilling companion stubbornly through some spectacular landscape and hairy situations.

los-viajes-del-viento1While beautiful to look at, the film didn’t really stand out in any particular way. You could substitute the old accordionist with, say, a kung fu master, or a literature professor, or any old sage with a special gift to impart on the young, and the basic story would pretty much be the same. And in the history of films, God knows this has been done again and again. The accordion only really comes to the fore in an early duel with a younger braggart in a music contest. Like the rapper’s duels in Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile, the accordion contest consists in psyching out one’s opponent by rhyme and insult while sticking to the chosen accordion tune. It may sound far fetched, but this part of the film really worked.

vientoThe travelogue, or road movie, is often an excellent way of highlighting a country’s geography and supporting the local tourist industry. Often, the tourist industry will help finance the film if the country is represented as a series of tourist vistas. This being Colombia, I’m not convinced that the ploy will be entirely successful, but we, the audience, win anyway. Especially since most of us will not get the chance – or take the chance – of visiting the country, I can’t think of a better way to be able to experience Colombia’s breathtaking natural vistas than in the comfort of the cinema chair, where the most immediate danger is an aneurysm triggered by some popcorn-munching moron by our side.

los-viajesUltimately, the film is worth seeing for its depiction of nature and the very varied geography – or geology. The stone formations towards the end were a sight to behold, as was the endless salt flats, the village built almost on the lake itself, and the Indian village atop a mountain. I have not seen exactly these sights before and felt fortunate to witness them in this way. The film also strikes up some laconic humoristic moments and I did chuckle a time or two. As for the main plot, I didn’t feel that it resolved itself entirely satisfactorily, but, as is my habit in these posts about films that most have not yet seen, I shan’t be spoiling the end here. The titular symbol of the travelling wind has a double bottom, referring both to the literal wind that has shaped the country and the various wind instruments. There is a scene where the wind blows through a piece of wood with a whistling sound, perhaps telling us that the tradition of these men has its roots in nature itself, in a time before Man, and that all we contribute are complications of that theme.

afterlifeHirokazu Kore-eda has made some seven films, not including his TV-work and some short films. Unfortunately not all of these are readily available in the west. His first film, Maborosi, an Ozu-style examination of a young widow trying to find a new lease on life after the loss of her husband , had a limited international run. But it was his second feature, the often wonderful After Life, which made him into a household name, if that house was an art house. (Yes, I know, bad pun…) In 2001 he made Distance, perhaps inspired by the gas attacks of a suicide cult in Japan; the Aum cult‘s nerve gas attack on the city’s subway system. Then came Nobody Knows, which got a wider release and was nominated in Cannes and won a number of Asian awards. The story of a group of children left to their own devices after their mother takes off, was a masterpiece of naturalistic acting. Kore-eda directed over almost two years, and the children visibly live in the film. There are scenes in Nobody Knows that should break most hearts that are not already irredeemably broken. In 2006, two years after Nobody Knows, he made Hana, about a samurai who doesn’t really want to be a samurai. He is no good at fighting and wishes he could spend his days helping the poor people of the village in which he takes up residence. His very latest film is Air Doll, about a blow up sex doll that turns human Pinocchio-style. I have not seen this yet, but those that have, comment that it is remarkable in that the film never is exploitative, nor even is interested in the sexual aspects of this offbeat story. The film is more about what it means to be human and the innocence of the non-human in comparison. The first thing the doll learns after becoming human with a beating heart, is to lie.

still-walkingThis lengthy introduction is spurred by my absolute satisfaction with Kore-eda’s penultimate film, made in 2008, and shown this day in the BIFF-festival. Still Walking is perhaps the first perfect film I’ve seen this year. I really can’t find any faults with it. The only film coming near it in quality is the Swedish Burrowing, which I spoke of in a former post. The two films have in common that they are influenced by other directors. In Kore-eda’s case, the spectre of Japanese master, Yasujirō Ozu, is present, but not overwhelming, while in Burrowing, Terrence Malick is perhaps an even more present godfather.

The majority of Still Walking takes place within 24 hours, but including the epilogue, the time covered is three years. The real scope of the film, however, reaches much longer, as both the past and the future is so implicit in these 24 hours, that the film nears an almost general understanding of the human situation, particularly our place in the everlasting links between generations, from the very first to the last. I was most impressed by the way in which the director achieved this generality from a very specific time in a specific family.

still walking grandfatherA man who has just lost his job brings for the first time his wife, who is a widow, and her son to the annual family reunion. He clearly is not on good terms with his mother and father; “you should call your mother more often“, the father tells him. “I can’t stand listening to all her complaints“, the son answers. The father is a retired doctor who feels useless and socially in a no-man’s land, as he hasn’t anyone to continue his practice, and therefore must still play the role of village doctor himself, even though he is not up to it.

Seemingly, much of the reason for the family’s strained relationship, is that the eldest son lost his life in a drowning accident many years before, while saving a young boy from the waves. This son was the father’s favourite, and is in hindsight made to have represented the hopes for the family’s future. Every time the conversation begins to run more or less easily, the mother mentions some details about the dead son, and the family is thrown back into non-communication.

The reason for the reunion, is indeed that it marks the anniversary for the son’s death. Also present here is a sister with her husband and two children, who the father finds noisy. We can only assume that had the dead son had any children, they would be just as noisy. This is a film where I don’t want to tell much about the plot, as much of the enjoyment comes from gradually piecing together the dynamics of the family and just what has gone wrong in their lives. It is never -apart from the death of the son, which paradoxically has brought them together – the big, life-changing events that make these people be who they are, what they have become. Kore-eda is a master in communicating much bigger truths by very small movements and glances. Sometimes he lets a phrase linger a bit longer than necessary in order for us to grasp not only the context of the phrase, the feeling behind it, but its consequences, insignificant as they may seem before we have the entire picture.

still_walking_02_148953cIt’s a cliché, but movies is really a universal language. I almost can’t think of better ways for us to see the common humanity between us all, than by immersing ourselves in works by masterful directors like Kore-eda. I felt more recognition in this film than in any Hollywood work I can recall. Nothing sudden or life-changing happens in the film, yet I felt a wiser person after having seen it, perhaps even wanting to be a better person. In this film, the characters don’t have “arcs”, as they evidently teach in Hollywood script classes. The characters that we observe become persons more than characters, and persons, for the most part, don’t suddenly learn something or change just because they have attended a family dinner, even though a number of American Thanksgiving films want us to believe this. They go on with their lives, as best they can, or maybe not even that.

What makes the film magic to me is also a consequence of the characters not only being oblivious to their shortcomings that we as spectators can detect in them, but that they actually go on living as if there never was anything particularly important about the day we have spent with them. They just go on, or as the film says in its title, they are still walking. (This phrase also comes up in a song the grandmother insists on playing on an old record player, and which she says she has a special relationship to. The song so subtly illuminates something of the past of the characters that we don’t quite grasp it before a shot of the grandfather doctor’s later reaction. The world of memories and forgotten times that comes into light here is staggering).

The only hint of sentimentality in the film, is when the unemployed son’s voiceover comments on what has happened in the three years since the family dinner. The words are spoken very matter of factly, but that very restraint is heartbreaking in its seeming neutrality to the lives that are commented. I would love to present the importance of the grandmother’s speech about butterflies and how that speech is reproduced later on, but this is such an integral part of the experience that I must leave it for the individual viewer to assess.

Still_Walking_2_149507aNot only is Kore-eda a master of presenting the social interaction and directing the actors into an almost completely naturalistic style, also his setting of the story deserves some mention. The film is shot in Yokosuka, Kanagawa, a seaside town with streets climbing upwards the mountainside from the sea. Seeing the wonderful locations, I couldn’t help but think of the kind of streets so typical of Studio Ghibli films, particularly Whisper of the Heart. There just is something very magnetic to me about this kind of setting, some serene quality that helps convince me that this site is ideal for the family home, a piece of childhood we all will always carry with us. The lack of the typical features of the big city helps the film to achieve a feeling not only of timelessness, but of placelessness. While very much a Japanese setting, the feeling is more general, of the kind of place that we find beautiful in hindsight, but that we had to move away from. The reasons probably felt important to us at the time, but any place we have lived in our formative years is bound to hold the ghosts of our younger selves in some way or another, still offering us possibilities of who we could have been had we by chance chosen differently.

stillwalking2Again, all this essaying runs the risk of making the film sound as if it could be boring. It is not. In fact, there are many scenes with a wonderful understated humour, not least in the comments by and about the grandmother and grandfather. As in any real grouping of human beings, be it a family or a group of friends, there is humour to be found in familiarity. Kore-eda, being concerned with reality, has the gift of finding the humour that springs from a common humanity, from recognition, even in the idiosyncratic. The actress You (yes, that is her stage name), who played the irresponsible mother in Nobody Knows, here gets the chance to use her quirky personality in a role that never seems as it is an imposed vehicle for her brand of acting. Her presence and comedic (her voice makes me think of a Japanese Meg Tilly) timing is so strong that when she leaves the film, we suddenly feel that we have been deprived of a comforting presence in what is, after all, a scary situation; reality. Or as close to reality as we want to come.

Offering us only a short glimpse into these characters’ lives, Kore-eda still makes us feel as if we’ve known them for a long time. His telling of this story is so effective that, even as we think that nothing very important happens, we get to learn everything that we need in order to fully grasp the situation as well as its ramifications. All the characters are given flesh and blood and lives that are not neatly solved by a contrived Hollywood script. Still, the miracle is that we don’t miss the solution, even though we’ve been indoctrinated to expect it. When all is said and done, we can leave and know that all is not said and it is not done. In fact, the way the characters are not able to come to terms with their shortcomings, or their disability to solve their conflicts, is the very thing that gives the piece such a powerful end. After this film, I really had to take some minutes to let the credits roll before I could or wanted to move. Those were good minutes.

BIFF, Day Four. The Festival Strikes Back.

October 26, 2009

Such a good start of this day! The Swedish Film Burrowing (Man Tänker Sitt) is the first true masterpiece of the festival. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a better (new) film this year. Experiences like this make everything worth it; the amount of mediocrity and pretentiousness (hello again, Un Lac!) one usually has to wade through in order to happen upon small jewels like this. The film is directed by first time directors Henrik Hellstrøm and Fredrik Wentzel. If they stick with their partnership, I can’t but think that we have much to look forward to in the coming years.

BURROWING_POSTER_WWWThis is a small film, both in length and, I presume, in budget. This means nothing more than that every scene is the perfect length, everything the film wants to tell, it tells admirably and with confidence. Hellstrøm and Wentzel has made a true film, in that the sentiments it wants to communicate are not easily reduced to words, but created by images and sound. The result is at times heartbreaking. More than being just a simple back to nature fable, the film lets us see people interacting with other people and how they have each discovered an emptiness in the world that perhaps has no remedy, but that in nature can somehow be reduced. A society needs rules, but when these rules take over each aspect of human interaction, they have a deadening effect on the soul, and personal identity becomes suspect.

I feel that it is difficult to address these issues through formal language, as the very uttering of the sentiment is based on a need to be understood by as many as possible, an agreed upon system. This is where Burrowing so admirably does the job better than I can in this review, as the film is not easily reduced to a clearly delineated argument. Some of the best novels of the world has talked about these issues, the estrangement of man in society is one of the oldest tales and constitutes an important part of what we call tragedy.

cabin_walden1The film starts with a quotation of Henry David Thoreau, famous for his Walden, about a man retreating from civilized society into the wilderness, into nature, for two years and two months. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”, he says in that book, which could have been used in the film as well. Instead they use another Walden quotation, from the economy chapter: “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior“. The film then cuts to a young boy walking along a lake. We hear his voice narrating. This innocent, yet wise in its way, voiceover will intermittently accompany us to the very end of the film. And what an end it is! Damn, if my eyes didn’t fill up… I could write about the poetry of the scene and how well the words illuminates all the preceding scenes we have witnessed, but that would be to deprive you of the pleasure of finding the beauty of the film for yourselves.

man tenker sittAs I mention an innocent-sounding voiceover and a longing and fascination for nature, I guess most will come in mind the films of Terrence Malick, and they wouldn’t be wrong. If Malick had been raised in Swedish suburbia, this is the film he would have made. Or something close to it. There is a scene of the boy walking through high grass, or weeds, while his voice tells of his understanding of the grown ups’ world, partly naively, partly containing a wisdom that disappears with the death of innocence, of the Eden of childhood. Soon enough the boy will be put in a suit and forced to nod politely to meaningless conversations about meaningless non-topics. It is at this point he reaches a decision. That decision has to do with the other small tragedies we witness.

man_tanker_sitt_2_press1One of these is the estrangement in a young man “without direction”, always carrying his baby in his arms. The scene where he changes diapers in a parking lot and is accosted by a well-meaning woman who threatens to report him to the social services seems very real and true. She doesn’t know anything about him, but has a vague feeling that society will punish her if she does not report such an obvious break with society’s norms. The young man is seemingly unable to take “control of his life” and thus has no place in the world of humans.

Then there is the Russian émigré who meant to stay a few months in Sweden, but has now lived there thirty years. He spends his days trying to spear fish in the small brook that runs between the houses. Who are you?, a suspicious neighbour asks him. He laughs, as if he has been told a joke.

There are others, all with a restlessness they seem unable to put into words, even in their own heads. Everyone stretched so thin in the need to show their neighbours “good behaviour”, that something is about to break, to break out into violence or self destruction. I think this is a feeling that is not limited to Scandinavia and their political model of social democracy, although I assume that plays a part in it.

I’ll end my recommendation by talking briefly about the music used in the film. I have never before heard of the composer, Erik Enocksson, but the way his music was used in the film made him an integral part of the experience. He has composed some almost Bach-like polyphonic and beautiful songs. They are very explicitly linked to the theme of the film. I think all the songs are in Latin, and although I’m not exactly fluent, I was able to discern some snippets.
Somnio, somnio, I heard repeated some times, meaning “to dream“, or “imagine follishly“, I think. Other lines were “Hic non serenitas regit”, which I think means something like “There is no peace/serenity here”. Hic qui virem regit, I think can mean “Here where Man – or perhaps Green – reigns“. Non Qui Periculi Imminent must be translated as something like “There is no danger here”. And other lines about wolves and bears, possibly star signs. The final line I was able to work out was Non Spiriti Mali, “there are no bad spirits here“, or something to that effect. I mention these lines as they can tell a bit about the simple, yet complicated feelings that the film addresses.

All this might lead you to think the film is boring. It is not, certainly not if you think that you can contribute a bit yourself to the little plot there is. The film is really put together like a series of situations that are linked by the characters’ mutual discontent, albeit for different reasons. Apart from the wonderful images, there are situations bound to draw a smile or a tear out of recognition. The film will have a Norwegian premiere in November, and hopefully other countries will also be able to see it outside festivals. It deserves a much bigger audience than I fear that it will have. Please see this!

mary_and_max1The next film of the day was the Australian claymation film Mary and Max, by Adam Elliot. This is a bittersweet tale of two outsiders, who find comfort and the possibility for a meaningful life in each other’s correspondence. One is a young unattractive Australian girl, the other an older fat New York Jew with Asperger syndrome. The result is a kind of 84 Charing Cross Road for extreme outsiders. The film is by no means as depressing as it sounds, although it deals with depression and many of life’s tragedies and setbacks. In fact, it is very funny. I think the entire cinema was laughing every two minutes. I really liked this, and the animation – or claymation, to be correct – is fantastic. And it’s for adults, so the filmmakers deserve credit for making a film in this format that doesn’t depend on millions of children or unethical merchandising to keep the production afloat. Recommended!

Fryktelig_lykkelig_141457bAfter Mary and Max, I had to go to work, so I was unable to see more films before the last film of the day. This was the Danish Fryktelig Lykkelig, Terribly Happy, directed by Henrik Ruben Genz, most known for his TV-work. Terribly Happy wants to be a Coen brothers film, but is no such thing. A policeman is transferred to the countryside where the local village is peopled by all kinds of weirdoes and the Danish version of Texan good ole boys. The protagonist is a bit of a moron right from the start, and thus his fall from grace doesn’t contain any grace to begin with. This makes for a very bad story, clichéd and contrived. For some reason this was among the most popular films in Denmark last year, even among critics. Don’t, I say, make the same mistake as the Danish. They tell me there is something rotten in that state. Had this film been on TV, I don’t think I’d bothered to watch it through. I guess it is passable entertainment, or rather, hardly even that.

However, even the mediocrity of the Danish couldn’t take away the satisfaction of the Swedish neighbours’ Burrowing. Remember this title, should it present itself to a cinema near you. Or even at some distance.