I've made it to Brisbane in time to catch the tail end of its new festival, the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival (BAPFF). The BAPFF is replacing the more compressed (in terms of time frame) and more sprawling (in terms of films' origins and the number of films programmed) Brisbane International Film Festival. As usual I'm writing up some of the films and as usual I make no promises as regards the quality of the writing or its regularity.
Salt of the Earth: Let's get the obvious out of the way: Sebastiao Salgado's photographs are so astonishing it's hard to describe them without one's prose descending into a mess of superlatives and cliches. Somehow he manages to capture people instead of bodies using just... see what I mean? In any case with that dealt with the question becomes whether The Salt of the Earth's presentation of Salgado's work does it justice. Initially the answer seems to be yes. The film opens with an evocative description of the photographer's art and the subsequent use of Salgado's narration and sound effects to contextualise his work is effective, if hardly revelatory. Eventually though, the film founders. The constant narration laid over the images rarely leaves room to simply contemplate the images and Salgado's baffling incomprehension in the face of Europeans with high standards of living committing unimaginable war crimes "...at the end of the twentieth century..." (!) serves only to diminish the man and his work. Similarly the biographical segments are patchy at best, tend to gloss over strife and culminate in a rather on the nose final set of title cards. (I suppose that's the risk of having a family member as one of the work's primary authors.)
Lake August: My enthusiasm for this film (bolstered by the appreciation of several smart film people) was initially deflated by its style. The festival approved formulae of static, or near static, master shots combined with long, unbroken takes is rapidly becoming less of a signifier for artistic seriousness and more of an indication of laziness. However several elements of the film combined to jolt me out of my apathy. The first of these was the way in which the style complements the film's content. What better way to convey the ennui of young adults cast adrift then long stultifying takes and airless conversations in which every question or statement is followed by a long pause? To be fair though this hardly sets the film aside from its festival brethren. What really drew me in was the indications that the director was really thinking about his shots and edits. A long shot of the protagonist dazing in a boat is broken by a sudden edit to a new and disorienting camera angle combined with the loud intrusion of a passing train on the soundtrack. I was jolted into life in much the same way as the protagonist.
Also notable is the way in which sly humour or commentary is regularly present as details at the edges of frames. The restaurant/hotel in which most of the film takes place is festooned with signs forbidding spitting and a mundane scene of the protagonist washing himself on a roof slowly morphs into something much stranger and pointed by way of a wayward political banner (indeed political posturing is ever present in this film but never remarked upon or even really noticed by the characters). Sly humour is not always simply a detail in this film: there's extended drunken "dance" scene that gets across a sense of anomie without requiring the viewer to stare directly into the void.
The danger of a film about anomie is that the main character - here a disaffected young man who speaks and acts with a near total lack of affect in the wake of personal tragedy - will quickly lose the audience's interest. Wisely Lake August contrasts him with Ah Fang, a more vivid character who is constantly investing more in her relationships than she can ever hope to get out of them. While at times faintly ridiculous (she is forever wearing absurdly chunky platform shoes) the defeats she suffers are heartbreaking - if only because she's one of the few characters in the film who is palpably invested in their own life.
If anything the complete product seems very reminiscent of the films of Jia Zhangke in both its depiction of people left adrift in modern China and in the ways in which the realist atmosphere is punctured by oddities (for example the, um, rather mobile architecture of Still Life). However Yang Heng is clearly doing much more than blindly copying as evidenced by the way he makes slow pans right into a recurring, yet never mechanical, motif.
For reading through all that nonsense I once again present you with Glen's Super Awesome Double Bills: For complete disaffection I recommend pairing Lake August with Wasted Youth. Actually no, don't do that unless you want to feel really lousy.