Burning

NZIFF: Burning, An Elephant Sitting Still, Thelma, Border, The Atlantic

The seventh installment from our team film critics swarming the cinemas of Auckland and Wellington for the 2018 NZ International Film Festival.


See also:

Birds of Passage, First Reformed, Disobedience, 3 Faces

In the Aisles, The Image Book, Apostasy, Brimstone and Glory

You Were Never Really Here, Kusama – Infinity, Transit, Yellow is Forbidden, Piercing, Terrified, The Miseducation of Cameron Post

McQueen, Rafiki, And Breathe Normally, Good Manners

The Cleaners, The Heiresses, Searching, Liquid Sky

The Green Fog, Island of the Hungry Ghosts, Mirai, Chulas Fronteras / Del Mero Corazon, Let the Corpses Tan

Burning

Burning arrives with the peculiar distinction of being the highest-rated film ever at Cannes (seriously, they measure this shit) and not receiving any awards. Of course, taste is in the eye of the beholder, as I was reminded after I introduced a screening of the exquisite Let The Corpses Tan and a dude hung out through the whole Q&A plus 15 minutes after to tell me it was a terrible film. So I have no massive confidence in taking the side of the Cannes jury on this one, and acknowledge I could easily be missing the boat. Directed by South Korean auteur Lee Chang-Dong (last seen at NZIFF with 2010’s Poetry), Burning adapts a Haruki Murakami short story, and it doesn’t take long for its literary roots to reveal themselves. The film’s opening scenes are exquisitely and precisely scripted, gearing its viewers for a masterful film – and yet. One – well, I – can’t help but feel that the symbolism and metaphor and foreshadowing are all too heavily present. Meanwhile, Lee directs the film with moments of exquisite restraint and others of assured bravura. There’s no question that certain scenes are executed with formal brio, and from an early stage, Burning quite self-consciously announces itself as a Great Film.

But there’s a difference between virtuosity and enjoyability. Burning takes a full 80 minutes to move from its symbolic love triangle to reveal itself as a genre film the likes of which Lee’s countrymen Bong Joon-Ho, Chan-wook Park or Kim Jee-Woon would make a gloriously pulpy 120 minute barnburner out of, one that would never play Cannes. Instead, this 150 minute film takes its sweet damn time wending its way to a finale that most of us will have seen coming an hour or more prior, in part thanks to Chekhov’s knife case and in part because the “surprise” is obvious to everyone except our protagonist, an aspiring writer but also a poor farmboy, played by Yoo Ah-In. Many have singled his performance out for praise, but I was never convinced that his gawky farmboy had ever written a word in his life, much less fallen in love with the prose of William Faulkner. Better is Steven Yeun as the rich rival, but his performance is still self-conscious, and his character is still principally metaphor. Perhaps Cannes critics loved this film because of its ferocious critique of the class struggle, which is consistently foregrounded in a billion different ways.

Or perhaps they loved it because of the ostentatious staging, such as a sunset chat and dance at a farmhouse that would be masterful if it wasn’t so busy announcing itself as masterful. Like the virtuosic and frenetic guitar noodling of Joe Satriani or Yngwie Malmsteen, I found it more wearying than captivating, and by the time of its finale, I was more distracted by its formal preoccupation than enmeshed in what should have been a character’s emotional denouement. Having said that, I get the wrong end of the stick of at least one film a year, and perhaps a repeat viewing will reveal that in fact I’m the one that’s full of shit, as many cinephiles I respect loved loved loved this. But as a genre fan who’s suspicious of “elevated genre”, Burning strikes me as a film that’s meant to be a pulp novel but positioning itself as great literature. The sentence structure might be outstanding, but is that what we’re here for? /Doug Dillaman

An Elephant Sitting Still

An Elephant Sitting Still

A principle of relativity: while Burning felt too long at 150 minutes, An Elephant Standing Still felt just about right at four hours. Hu Bo’s debut and swan song doesn’t augur itself as something one could easily endure; within the first half-hour, we’ve had a suicide and a gun to the head, and it won’t be the last time we see a character on the ledge. Around that time, one character asks “Why so positive about the future?”. Less than 30 seconds later, another character proclaims “The world is a wasteland.” It’s 90 minutes before any action that remotely resembles kindness occurs. You get the idea: An Elephant Sitting Still isn’t a laugh a minute. It’s barely a laugh an hour.

Yet, despite being bleak, it somehow never becomes oppressive or mechanistic, and I was consistently engaged. Recalling the films of Edward Yang in its detailed observation – one could called it A Darker Winter’s Day, what with its colour photography largely consisting of shades of black and grey – Hu Bo uses long takes to immerse ourselves in the headspace of four characters over the course of one day. Burrowing deep into the hypocrisy of Chinese society, in particular the inability of characters to take responsibility for their own actions, Elephant builds and builds to an astonishing climax that brings several of its characters together in what’s both a piece of quiet virtuosity and brilliant scripting. I can’t claim that Elephant is an unqualified masterpiece – there’s some technical faults, and the score screams “friends of director” instead of “qualified composer”. But it’s one of the greatest debuts I’ve seen, and while it’s a tragedy that Hu Bo took his own life before the film saw its release, the greater tragedy is that he couldn’t find the light within the darkness that he found in his own script. That over half of the audience sat through the entire credits of a four hour movie is testament to the elemental force of his film. So take a few trips to the bathroom beforehand, strap in, and let yourselves get lost in this dark vision. /Doug Dillaman

Thelma

Thelma

Here’s how good Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier’s Thelma is: I got intensely annoyed with one of its key moments, and went home and ranted to my partner about how that character just wouldn’t have done that and how it was such contrived plot-mechanic-disguised-as-character-development writing, and in the course of my rant I realised that my problem was actually just that I was too invested in the situation and the character had done something I didn’t want her to do. By rant’s end I was explaining to my partner what an intelligent bit of psychology-meets-plot-requirements writing it had been, and how the character had done this wildly stupid thing because of course someone raised that way would have done it, and how in fact the entire story was brought into focus by that moment, and… yeah, my partner’s pretty patient. This film got deep inside my head. I’m still living it.

Thelma is grammatically a horror story, deploying music – and shot framing, and references to other films, the 1976 original Carrie predominantly, but music above all – to tell us that things are wrong. The title character is a young woman newly away from her deeply Christian home, discovering that the world contains people who don’t believe what she believes, and that her beliefs may in fact be quite mistaken. For instance, she believes she’s attracted to men, and she believes she doesn’t have appallingly dangerous psychic powers.

So, awakening female desire, repressed by the patriarchy and then externalised as destructive force: we’ve only seen this trope a billion times. What’s so fresh about Thelma is, first, Thelma herself – Eili Harboe, who plays her, is impressive, able to convey the energy and confusion sitting just under the still surface of a very repressed character – and second, the way her sense of collapsing identity spreads out and infects the film’s genre presentation. You think it’s horror, and it certainly wears the right clothes; but is that just reflecting how Thelma’s controlling father sees her? Maybe this is a self-liberation story doubling as a weird superhero origin tale? Or actually… is something more complicated and worrying going on? Not to spoil anything, but I’m still deciding whether the ending was a hopeful one.

I should add: the film is technically assured and gorgeous to look at. The opening scene, where a six year old Thelma and her father stand on a frozen fjord, watching fish swim below the ice, is as striking as anything you’ll see in this festival. /David Larsen

Border

Border

I saw Thelma the day after watching Border, and I’m glad I took them in that order. Two Scandinavian horror-inflected genre films about outsider women coming to terms with themselves, and in particular, coming to understand that what they’ve grown up believing about their sexual identities may be quite untrue: it makes for an interesting comparison. It would be a more pleasing one if Border were half as good as it ought to be.

Film adaptations of novels tend to run up against a basic problem of scale: you can’t fit as much story into a film as you can into a novel. Films should therefore leave novels to long-form TV, and adapt short stories; I’ve been saying this for years, and so a bad film adaptation of a good short story, co-written by someone who’s done a very good film adaptation of a novel, is particularly annoying to me. John Ajvide Lindqvist wrote the screenplays for both the Swedish and the American film versions of Let The Right One In, based on his own novel; the Swedish film is one of the great vampire movies. (The American one is the same film amped up and given a car chase; it could be a deliberate how-to-sell-to-Hollywood parody). Border adapts Lindqvist’s story of the same name, and it’s one not too substantial rewrite and several design decisions away from being something I’d have liked a lot.

Tina works as a customs inspector in a small city on the Swedish coast. She’s quiet and odd-looking — her heavy brows and hairy skin make her conventionally unattractive, which she knows very well. Her sense of smell is so preturnaturally acute that she can spot smugglers by their pheremones. One day she encounters someone who looks like her and smells interesting. She thinks of herself as asexual, so it takes her a while to register that she finds this stranger not so much “interesting” as “hot”.

There’s more to the story, but not too much more. The film sets a deliberately slow pace, letting us spend time with Tina and get a sense of how constrained her life is, and how important it is for her that she lives out of town, in the deep woods. Eva Melander is very good as Tina, giving her  dignity and the alert caution of someone who expects to be badly treated; it’s smart that the film moves as carefully as she does, because it gives us time to get used to her and see that she is, in fact, beautiful. Her facial prosthetics – heavy, but not outrageously so – are not where the film’s design elements let Tina down. That would be the penis prosthetic we encounter when we reach the sex scene.

Sex can go wrong so very many ways in film. (As, indeed, in life). In this case, we’re talking about a character badly damaged by years of social shunning, who perceives herself as unattractive to the point of deformity, and who one day makes the discovery that different does not equal wrong. This is a profound personal breakthrough; but Tina happens to be a character conceived right on the edge of realism, and the way this is demonstrated for us has the effect of converting what should be a transcendent moment into kitsch. The film’s mood of quiet restraint does not recover. “That was just… really weird”, I heard someone say as we were leaving the theatre. In the right tone of voice, that would be praise. This was the other tone of voice. /David Larsen

The Atlantic

The Atlantic

Several years ago, I had a conversation with NZIFF Festival Director Bill Gosden between films, where he urged me to see a little-heralded movie, whose name I can’t recall, that was set in Corfu. (If that sounds name-droppy, it’s not; near as I can tell, he’s happy to speak to all film nerds, and can often be found loitering near lines or in lobbies.) “But it’s three hours,” I demurred, to which he immediately scoffed, “Three hours in paradise!” It was a comment that sat in the back of my mind for a long time, and made me realise that a key component of Bill Gosden’s personal cinephilia – which, naturally, extends to his programming – is international cinema as a cost-effective vehicle for exploring the world. Such films, ones whose setting is of more significance than their directorial, script, or performance qualities, are also a perfect tonic to the heavier films that tend to fill a festival programme. As I came to appreciate this quality, it also gave me a license to relax into films that might not be lighting my mind on fire with cinematic mastery and to enjoy them for what they did offer, instead of raging against what they lacked.

It’s in that spirit – rather than, say, with klaxons announcing the unearthing of a lost classic – that the programming of The Atlantic, one of a handful of films picked from previous festivals to celebrate 50 years of the film festival in Auckland, should be taken. While its title and featured image point towards the sea, and there’s no shortage of vivid languid shots of the roiling ocean, The Atlantic largely focuses on the islands of the Atlantic, taking us from the Azores to Cape Verde to St. Helena to the abandoned outpost of South Georgia, meeting whalers, whiskey collectors, radio announcers and mildly befuddled priests along the way. There’s something of the intrepid spirit of Werner Herzog here, one underscored by a Max von Sydow voiceover that replaces Herzog’s volcanic angst with mordant philosophizing over the nature of, say, what constitutes an island. But the literary construction of the voiceover owes something more to, perhaps, the essay films of Chris Marker, acting as the diary of a fictional protagonist.

Shoes like Marker’s and Herzog’s are big to fill, and I wouldn’t argue that The Atlantic fully succeeds. But it’s a pleasant window into the past, particularly viewed on 35mm, the soft light of projected celluloid a pleasure for the eyes after countless digital projections. We’ve had no shortage of drop-dead gorgeous oceanic documentaries in recent years, but this film’s lack of razor-sharp digital detail gives a lovely impressionistic feel to waves and faces alike. Released in 1994, The Atlantic could have easily been made in 1984 or 1974, a timeless quality that will either seem charming or antiquated. While assuredly competent, it’s not world class filmmaking, but you won’t find a cheaper 75 minute voyage across the length of the Atlantic. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. /Doug Dillaman

 

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