CIFF 2014 Day 1: ‘Words With Gods’ and ‘The Midnight After’

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Day 1 begins with two films I listed in my Top 5 Most Anticipated List.

Words With Gods
Directed by:
Guillermo Arriaga … (segment “La Sangre de Dios”)
Hector Babenco … (segment “The Man That Stole a Duck”)
Álex de la Iglesia … (segment “The Confession”)
Bahman Ghobadi … (segment “Kaboki”)
Amos Gitai … (segment “The Book of Amos”)
Emir Kusturica … (segment “Our Life”)
Mira Nair … (segment “God Room”)

Hideo Nakata … (segment “Sufferings”)
Warwick Thornton … (segment “True Gods”)
Written by Jorge Guerricaechevarría (segment) and Álex de la Iglesia (segment)
Spain 2014

Words With Gods is a collection of nine short films, shot by nine different directors representing nine different religions that they themselves believe or were raised in at some point. Guillermo Arriaga who produced the project and directed a short atheism says he hopes to foster a dialogue of understanding between faiths, and this film is hopefully the first in a series of movies discussing all those topics we’re told not to discuss at the dinner table: sex, drugs, politics and of course, religion.

Like any anthology of short films Words With Gods suffers from unevenness. Hideo Nakata’s segment dealing with a man questioning why his gods would take his family during a tsunami but spare him seemed much too familiar to have a lasting impact. It’s certainly heartfelt and deals specifically with a true story that happened only a few years ago, but the crisis of faith in the face of personal tragedy is such a well-worn topic that it comes of somewhat more cliche than relevant. Then again maybe this story wasn’t for me, maybe it was for the people of Japan who lived through the horrors of March 11th, 2011 and I can accept that.

Serbian actor/director Emir Kusturica’s piece on Orthodox Christianity, Our Life, in which a man, played by Kusturica, carries a bunch of broken rocks up a very large hill covered in even more broken rocks, is also about a crisis of faith, but looks at the issue by testing the main character’s physical limits. Kusturica’s performance, the editing, and the sound seem to be pushing and at times dragging each other up that hill creating an intense sense of rhythm It’s also a good example of a film showing, not telling. For example, the symbolism of the sudden appearance of a snake as the devil is clear but never explicitly implied.

Bahman Ghobadi’s Sometimes Look Up, a piece representing Iran by way of Kurdistan, depicts two literally inseparable brothers who must deal with their different perspectives on faith. One is strictly devout while the other would like to go out on a date and, if things go well, even kiss a woman. The film clearly sees beauty Islamic religion expressing power to inspire and awe, while at the same time criticizing the way it’s been manipulated to limit the enjoyment of all the wonders of life. This is a vital topic that applies to more than just Muslims, and based on the several Iranian films I’ve seen over the last years seems to be on the minds of many filmmakers in that country and abroad.

Arriaga’s short, God’s Blood, closes the film out with a look at atheism and the literal death of God. In a film exploring religion it was exciting to see how a story about atheism, which would presumably be at odds with the divine spirituality expressed up until that point. The story, in which an atheist man claims God told him in a dream that God plans to kill himself, does retain a sense of spirituality to it. There is a clear reverence for God and what h stood for, and there’s a profound sense of mourning for his passing, that is quite touching and refreshing. It’s as though God was an old high school pal that you fell out of touch with during the first year of college and didn’t hear from for decades when it was too late. However the film posits that despite this monumental and indeed tragic occasion, life will continue and thrive: the universe stops for nothing not even the death of God. It’s probably the one film that acknowledges the existence of other faiths while at the same time asserting the validity of its own, and most represents the heart of what Arriaga was after when this project began.

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The Midnight After
Directed by Fruit Chan
Written by Fai-hung Chan and Fruit Chan

Hong Kong, 2014

Fruit Chan’s film about 17 people on a minibus who find themelves to be the only people left in Hong Kong – possibly the world – also serves as a metaphor for the feeling of discontent and disappointment of going from British Imperialist but democratic rule to Chinese communist rule with severely limited representation. But don’t let all that real world stuff put you off, the film is still a horror show of exploding faces, absurd hatchet fights, and a Lost-like mystery.

What makes Fruit Chan’s film succeed on multiple levels is that it’s finely tuned between the science-fiction horror and its socio-criticism. When one of the survivors is found out to be a pretty despicable guy, the others serve as judge and jury and  decide to execute him by taking turns stabbing him. While the scene is making a clear statement about capital punishment and society’s complicity in it’s own devaluation of human life, it’s also darkly humorous to watch the people getting the gumption to stab another human, in what becomes a comically drawn out affair. The Midnight After rests on that apex of subversive cinema where subtextual rewards meets the superficially entertaining. Horror with a clear message and conscience can still be fun.

Tomorrow….

I’ve only just started my CIFF 2014 journey. Up next on my plate : Anna Kazejak’s Polish/Danish high school drama The Word, Germany’s feel-good assisted-suicide film of the year Zurich by director Frederick Steiner, and Diao Yinan’s detective story Black Coal Thin Ice from Hong Kong.

 – Jae Renfrow

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1 Comment

  1. somediting says

    “…but never explicitly implied.”
    Maybe it is implicitly explicated? :)
    a nice synoptic review in general

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