As always with Miguel Gomes, my expectations were largely surpassed.
Having failed to see Miguel Gomes’ Redemption in other festivals, I was frankly anticipating Restless Memories, the shorts programme where it has been included. I found the programme good and quite consistent (though i had to miss the last film in the bunch, Colleen Kwok’s Rectangibles) but it is inevitable to admit Redemption’s rise above them all.
As usual in his work, Gomes latest film is a short documentary which is also a fiction as, for instance, Christmas Inventory (Inventário de Natal) was a short fiction which was also a documentary or Our Beloved Month of August (Aquele Querido Mês de Agosto) was also a shifting creature. As we know by now, this formal aspect can never be undermined as a stylistic option only, it is the core of his cinema and it’s as precious here as in any other of his films.
What we see is a cinematic wonder in four different parts, each one made out of very compact archival clips which are visual counterparts of the four voiceover letters written by Gomes himself and Mariana Ricardo (his usual collaborator) but, as we find out at the end, addressed by four (present or past) right-wing European leaders: Pedro Passos Coelho, Portugal’s actual prime minister; Silvio Berlusconi; Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel.
The audio letters are fictional nostalgic evocations of places and times that were but cannot be anymore or the longing for what never was and will never be, so beautifully written and poignantly crafted that they manage to be at once (also fairly due to the voices supporting them) moving, mysterious, melancholic, nihilistic or desperate and to keep on being it even when satirical, historic and political enter the picture in a masterful balance so often so hard to achieve; the visual letters work as imagetic fantasies of what is being evoked, being almost all of them real life documents and – as aforementioned on the importance of fiction/non-fiction in Gomes work – precisely because of that, opening the letters to other dimension, the realm of appropriation of memory, idealisation of facts and longing for what never was – all very Western European issues and some of them very specifically Portuguese, deeply rooted in its culture.
As always with Miguel Gomes, my expectations were largely surpassed. A cineaste in all senses of the word, Gomes keeps on dwelling on the frontiers and intersections of the personal and the universal; the sentimental and the pragmatic; the romantic and the political; the fictional and the real. Masterfully structured, this short film is a gem; one of thought and strong emotions – the unforgettable child’s voice, in the first text, stating: “Portugal is a very sad country and will always be like this.”
My next session brought more shorts, this time at Black Box, the experimental strand. In a very densely packed but consistent programme called Commodification – Appropriation, I started with Songdo Prophecy by Emilija Skarnulyte (unfortunately missing the first in the line up, Jeanne Liotta’s Property) which I found strikingly beautiful. A place and its fantasised fate, its imagined history, are evoked by a prophet who predicts the future that never comes to be. We watch silent shots of Songdo – an utopian South Korean real estate project, the largest ever projected and never finished – which, in an utterly clever and simple decision, carries the prophecy in themselves by the means of subtitles, thus placing in the same dimension of reality contemporary footage of the “city” and its unfulfilled foreseen destiny. The silence, by refusing voice over or music, it’s also evidently a way to set the ghostly ambience and soak the haunting images in melancholy and desolation.
While some films in the session worked really well as links between others but, I would say, not so much autonomously, others easily stood above the rest. From those I would pick:
Catalogue (dir. Dana Berman Duff) a conceptual film on 16mm which was able to be visually pleasing – richly textured shots in beautiful black and white, volumes resembling sculptures – and thought provoking with its simple depiction of surprisingly layered dimensions of surface and reality.
Under the Heat Lamp an Opening (dir. Zachary Epcar) is an interesting juxtaposition of wide shots of a cafe’s mirrored ceiling – which, with its breaks, turns the big frame into several little ones – extremely close shots of body parts – usually talking, eating or drinking – and natural sound that at times seems to be diegetic while others doesn’t. The editing is evidently the basis of its structure and graciously builds a micro universe, through addition or repetition, where everyday elements and codes are enhanced thus perceived and understood in a different way.
In Encounters with your Inner Trotsky Child, director Jim Finn gets, once more, his hands into icons and symbols of left wing ideologies without being demagogic or apologetic. Through a humorous self-help VHS video pastiche, taken seriously enough to truly immerse us in the post modern home video 80s vibe, Finn lead us to a reflection on domestic loneliness, demagogic politics and new age desolation. Funny and visually seductive, a brilliant way to finish the programme.
Lee Su-jin’s Han Gong-ju won a bunch of festival awards, including Tiger Award at Rotterdam early this year and had great reviews praising its puzzle-like innovative narrative and powerful performances. As you can imagine I couldn’t help it (again), my expectations were high.
Let’s put it this way: although Han Gong-ju has in its leading character an amazing actress and also a well crafted elliptic narrative, there is nothing ultimately interesting, cinematically speaking, and there are even some really poor developed elements which result sometimes in embarrassing moments, to say the least (e.g. musical moment depicting Han Gong-Ju’s talent and maturity achieved by traumatic experience).
It’s the story of a teenage girl (the titular character) exiled from her hometown and school following her involvement in mysterious events (that we get access to through flashbacks as the film unfolds) who tries not to fall apart despite her whole world crumbling around her. Moving at times and revealing of specific South Korean social issues, we don’t get much more than an engaging narrative which also reflects on a broader sense of isolation and pain in the aftermath of physical violence and abuse, while examining society’s reaction to those events. Add good performances and well developed characters, that’s it. And maybe that is not to be undermined but is surely not unforgettable.