Monday, November 14, 2011

BIFF Reviews: Who Said Class Was Dead?

Even the Rain: This film can best be likened to using a blunt instrument: it gets the job done but using a finer tool might have resulted in a better finish. This problem is compounded by its over-ambitious set-up, in which a film crew arrives to tell the story of Columbus’s oppression of the Indians and the priest who set himself against this colonialism. The historical context of the story is established as a parallel, not only to the film crews’ heedless exploitation of the present day Indians, but also to the government’s privatisation of the water supply.*

Such a large scope means that the film-makers cannot help but to fail in the charge they set themselves: To create a film about colonialism which doesn’t simply create the unvarnished heroes and villains their fictional film-makers are presenting but rather one which digs into the personal lives of its subjects and finds complexities in their motivations.

Such failure isn’t for lack of trying: In the one scene the filmmakers afford to government representatives they allow their villains to lay out the seductive logic of privatisation, which, at face value at least, is less hiss-able than the fictional filmmakers' slaughtering Spaniards. Furthermore, although the parallels drawn between the past and present are at times overly literal, they never feel forced and they are wisely dropped at the end to make way for a strong climax.

However they also hamper the film; leaving it without sufficient time to really get stuck into the whole geopolitical context in which the current events are embedded or to really interrogate and explore the government officials public decisions and personal lives. It’s impossible to do this subject matter full justice when they’re also committed to laying out personal arcs for the filmmakers, getting the history of colonialism across, and paying due attention to the villagers’ side of the dispute.

To be honest though I’m not sure writer-director Iciar Bollain has the chops to do this in a truly subtle, provoking manner. Rich outsiders meet poor insiders clich├ęs permeate the film: including the old standby of the outsider inadvertently revealing his contempt for the insider while speaking a language he believes the latter doesn’t know. Such clumsy moments are rarely improved by the direction: about 75% of the film is shot in close-up and this choice means that character’s emotions and decisions are almost always conveyed by their dialogue and facial expression – we rarely see their bodies in relation to one another or their physical movements.

For me though the greatest missed opportunity comes at the film’s end. Up until this point the fictional film-makers have had their priorities seriously questioned: which is more important to them: the success of their project, seven years in the making, or the livelihoods of these people they barely know and yet owe so much to? When it comes to the crunch however the film lets them off the hook by giving them the chance to have their cake and eat it too, albeit at a later date. At this point it feels a bit like the film has created its own meta-narrative of failed idealism.
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*A real life event.

Elena: Attention to detail is what this film does best. Everything is laid out and executed with the upmost control. This is on display from the opening scenes in which the morning ritual of the couple at the centre of the film is carefully laid out. It’s something we’ll need to know because Andrei Zvyagintsev draws much of the emotion in his film, not out of close-ups of nervous, shuddering hands or tear-streaked visages, but rather out of the way this ritual is both perpetuated and altered.

There’s a similar meticulous sensibility at work in the way he sketches out class differences.  He directs attention to even the most subtle of things: we are given time to notice the difference in sound quality between the upper class dwelling, where it is quiet enough to hear the birds, and the lower class dwelling, where the sound of the refrigerator is heard throughout the flat. But Zvyagintsev isn’t only interested in material disparities, he builds up a holistic picture of differences (and similarities) in vocabulary and language use, in gender relations, in modes of transport, in attitudes towards social relations and in maintenance of family relationships. And all the while he plays with his audience’s sympathies. 

It’s because of this scrupulousness, on display in every frame of the film, that I was willing to let the ending, ostensibly a cop-out, sit for a little while. For me the ending is not an avoidance of a dramatic battle over a will that seems to be in the offing but rather a final capstone to the film’s picture of class differences.  The last images both make a pointed comment about the plight of the working class while simultaneously forcing you to weigh up the nature of their new found situation and how you feel about it.

The Yellow Sea: It begins, as these jobs often do, with glimmers of hope. Sure, there’s the requisite “story from childhood/Confucian philosophy” bit, so often used to lend this kind of film unearned profundity, but perhaps this new guy, this Hong-jin Na, will really follow through on it. It’s not unprecedented of course, one of the old hands, that Tsui Hark dude, managed do it in The Blade. In any case, there are many reasons to be hopeful. This guy isn’t repeating stuff to make sure I understand it and he’s more than willing to compress time in order to get to the good bits.

There’s also a sign that the whole “socially responsible context” is actually important to Hong-jin. He’s drawing a really strong picture of desperation, of what it means to be treated like cattle and to be a fish out of water. He’s a pretty meticulous bastard too; he’s setting up this first action scene as if he’s directing a classic heist film. I like this guy. I could hire him again.

Now I’m starting to think our working relationship could be a little rough. Turns out Hong-jin likes to cut the action quick. We’re talking wham, bam and thankyou ma’am quick. Granted he’s not making a complete hash of things. I’m working hard for my easy thrills but at least he chooses the content of his half-glimpsed shots carefully. In all honesty it’s more annoying when he decides short conversions need be juiced up. Now you see one side of his face! Now the other side of his face! And back to the other side!

Oh now it’s all going to shit. Hong-jin’s taking my hand and telling me we should just leave our good buddy - our hard bitten protagonist with a heart of gold - and see these cool badass friends of his. I don’t like this; it seems like a shitty plan but whatever, this director has good references. Turns out I was right, this is a shitty plan: One of his cool friends is spectacularly bland and the other has a one note personality which is only sporadically funny. Meanwhile the emotional hook of this whole thing is playing out on a lousy television.

Oh god, just make it stop. Now all his action sequences are dissolving into one single, interminable knife fight and I’m so over this supposedly pulse-quickening brutality. I wish someone would turn up with a gun and put them all out of their misery. 

Wait! What’s this? It’s the requisite bittersweet ending! Hallelujah! Oh, oh wow, I might have found this kind of moving about 45 minutes ago but now I’m just thinking about my own bittersweet ending: a wonderful festival capped off with a spectacularly ill-advised closing film selection. Wait! It’s even bitterer-sweeter! Oh yeah, that’s right, if I hadn’t been so anxious to get to know this cool dude I would have seen Let the Bullets Fly and spent my last night with Kore-eda.  I’m so over this film; let’s blow this thing and head home.

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