The Japanese Dog and Journey to the West.
We follow the monk’s (the usual Lee Kang-sheng) way through the city and its particular architecture, while a local man (Denis Lavant) awakes – in more than the plain sense of the word – and joins his path. Bodies can be rocks and mountains or steam and wind; not only the transcendent and the mundane coexist – never really disrupting each other or interacting, in a very clear and poignant way of asserting their irreconcilable position in western contemporary societies (the city is Marseille) – but also the mundane can transform into sublime. By means of exclusion from that same society, the mundane local man connects closer with the exterior transcendent element than with the cultural group that it parted from.
Stunning and cohesive static shots build up an incomplete whole and, although that feeling of unbalance may say much about Tsai Ming-liang’s return to experiment, I can’t help but feel that some scenes are lacking there, as if the film hasn’t reached its end. As if the narrative itself was left suspended.
Time again for Black Box, this time under the sign of language in a programme appropriately called Languages of Intimacy. From this very consistent and well structured group of four I was mostly captivated by the first two.
The Simili- School (dir. Marlies Poeschl) was an intriguing surprise, a film that doesn’t resemble anything I’ve seen lately (despite echoing a bit of Rivette) for its ability to summon conceptual, narrative, poetic and essayistic and present its intersected result in a very interesting and unexpected way. Tricking us all the way through the ambivalences of fiction and non-fiction, Poeschl’s short takes us into an apartment in Paris where a group of young adults from diverse nationalities but similar cultural and social backgrounds, who form a (unique) language school of slang.
The motive is integration: being all foreigners (in Paris) they share experiences about the lack of confidence and the constraint felt in social occasions due to the language barrier: slang, particularly, will help them adapt, so they claim. On the other hand, what we see are several (self proclaimed) outcasts coming together, assembling a society (i.e. belonging) which rises, falls and disappears, as any other society, while they learn a form of language that, we can predict (their social and economical status, their behaviour) will never be used. Language turns into an experience in itself (sometimes pleasurable, other times frustrating) although still preserving its primordial purpose of communication and bonding, just in a slightly different way.
Despite the deep abyss separating Theresa Schwartzman’s Alligator Tears from The Simili- School, there is more than just the element of language placing them together and in this precise order. Yes, language is again the nucleus here; and so it’s the fact that language is context bound, the learning process is developed in a group rather than individually and theatrical devices are used to achieve it. Yet the most striking common element is the way that same language becomes useless regarding the initial motive – in this case the heartbreaking attempt to step up in the passive-aggressive mother-daughter relationship that the director so desperately craves – getting instead another purpose but still one that enables the overcoming of the situation – as in Poeschl’s film, through the experience of the learning, the physical process per se. Intimate, strongly personal but with a dreamlike sense of fiction and drama achieved not only by the intersection of clips of Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (mirroring the filial relationship at stake here) with the rehearsals depicted in the film but also for the beautifully grainy stylised black and white that taints them. A lucid and moving piece.
Lee Chatametikool’s Concrete Clouds take us back to the late 90s, concretely to the Southeast Asian economic crisis and its consequences, fairly summarised in a quiet and gloomy opening sequence of suicide and the lightly over the top pack of ads that follows it. It’s the time for living high and be left dry in Bangkok, as the city rises in highness as much as in expectations and spaces are build to be left vacant. After their father’s suicide, two brothers are reunited in their paternal house – one, younger, never left; the other comes back from New York where he’s building a life of his own – but only sparsely. While the visitor is mostly disconnected with the country and his family’s reality – and re-engages with it, and his past, in a sadly fantasise way – the other lucidly drifts, with no path ahead now than the golden skyline collapsed in fraud.
With an almost split story narrative, Chatametikool tries to make his film stick to its programme – its agenda, we could say, of developing two visions of the same problem thus expanding it – while the film itself refuses it. Everything about the younger brother’s storyline is interesting: the neighbour girl and his relationship with her; the way the spaces are filmed – her bedroom and the connection between the two flats, as if they were contiguous – the layers of deception and uncertainty synthesised in his body – stillness and gestures – and above all, as the most effective and also moving elements of the whole film – for the way they dialogue with the rest of it – the fictional karaoke/music video sequences, erupting in the silence with its tv aesthetics and dramatic innocence. For all that is compelling and exciting here there is bland and clichéd counterpart in the older brother path; terrible dialogue and poorly developed character, never stressed either in the right moments or enough to go beyond the predictable fait divers. Though occasionally moving Concrete Clouds is much less the film it could be, one trying to escape the structure imposed to it.
The Japanese Dog (dir. Tudor Cristian Jurgiu) my last session of quite a long day, is an extraordinary work. An unexpected movement – for our presumptuous assumptions about recent Romanian cinema and also for how the story unfolds and the structure builds up its naturalistic and mildly bleak way – await us in the end of this solidly directed (although the first feature of Jurgiu) delicate and patient film.
Costache (impressive Victor Rebengiuc) an elderly lonely man living in the Romanian countryside, in a region just hit by a flood which destroyed most of his life belongings, is presented to us through beautifully lightened and precisely framed shots where each camera movement has a purpose and its place is always the fairest one – as in the beautiful sequence where, after receiving a letter from his son, a long time immigrant in Japan, Costache flees, in bitter modesty, not only from the postgirl but also from us, closing the door of his bedroom on the camera to read the letter unobserved. His life, however disrupted by destruction, follows its routinely way with harmless meddling from the part of some neighbours and adaptation to the new circumstances.
Pain and anger lurk underneath but Costache is determined to ignore them, in an act of denial induced less by a natural fear of cope with those feelings than by the resignation to an absence of future therefore the uselessness of those disruptive feelings. Here lies the core of The Japanese Dog, as we disclose later in the last quarter of the film. Before that, we watch as Costache’s mundane days are interrupted by the visit of Ticu, the son, his wife and son, as we settle our minds for some themes: conflict between cultures; generation gap among families; isolation and decay of the elderly, all the habituals. But The Japanese Dog is one of the most astounding and beautiful deceptions I’ve seen recently; an insightful, clever and caring work about the conflict between a fully lived life and the possibility of a new one, a study on the fear of changing or rather the inability to even conceive changing in such a context. The whole segment of the son’s visit – a moment among others in the film rather than the main plot as one could expect – is exemplar of the way Jurgiu depicts this idea; Costache goes, as he interacts with his son, grandson and daughter in law in several mundane and highly meaningful moments, from wanting his son to come back and settle in his lands to ponder of himself going and settle in new lands, he goes from ending to beginning. In the last shot in leaves the village, it’s a frontal shot of himself in a car being transported, letting himself being taken, and that is the most that we need to see about the changes in his life.