Another year, another film festival goes by. The 34th Vancouver International Film Festival was 16 days of intense film watching, as I tried to immerse myself in a fleeting atmosphere celebrating the some of the best of contemporary world cinema. And even though VIFF may not boast the prestige or media frenzy of Cannes, TIFF, or NYFF, it does – like almost any film festival does – hold a special place in the mind of this budding cinephile. With over 350 films, it’s necessary to schedule my time according to the best films, generally award winners from previous fests.
But I try to deviate from the known auteurs and films which garnered bouquets of critical praise earlier in the year, because my favourite part of film festivals is nestling into the Pacific Cinematheque or Vancity Theatre at a sparsely populated screening, with the anticipation of seeing what could be a masterpiece or a disaster. Last year, I discovered A Corner of Heaven, La Sapienza, and Papusza.
These are not my absolute, favourite films of the festival, although they would certainly round out my Top 10, but rather the lesser knowns; films I feel compelled to champion not only because they deserve wider acclaim and critical recognition, but because, in my eyes, these are the life and soul of film festivals.
Love And… (Zhang Lu)
Perhaps my most serendipitous screening (I very nearly skipped it), which also happened to be the world premiere, Zhang Lu’s Love And… explores how love and cinema intertwine in this playfully experimental feature. Split into four parts, each of which is connected yet thematically but visually dissimilar, it unravels at a slow pace, stretching its 70 minutes to its breaking point. Opening in a dull, clichéd black & white story about a young girl visiting her grandfather in an institution, the film jarringly adjusts to colour and a shaky handheld camera, and we realize that we’re now behind the scenes of a movie being made. The gaffer confronts the director, claiming his film is an insult to love before he storms off the production, taking a reel of film with him. The next three chapters of the film take a dive into the rabbit hole, rarely coming back up for air, as we see the various parts of the film which the gaffer would make, if he would the director. It ranges from strange, seemingly disparate shots of various locations, with poetry from Borges undergirding it to provide some semblance of meaning, to taking clips from other films, including Memories of Murder (and all the films include at least one of the actors from Love And…), but remove the sound completely, adding only subtitles contextualized for this film. The last chapter is the oddest of them all, replaying the opening sequence, but in colour, and with the actors entirely removed but mise-en-scene intact. It may be a difficult, challenging film (and certainly not for everyone; the screening I attended had around 20-30 people in the audience, with a good many walking out as soon it took a turn for the experimental), but its delightful approach to its themes and inclination towards taking risks and experimentation rather than playing it safe cements it as one of my most memorable films at VIFF.
Kaili Blues (Bi Gan)
Perhaps the highest anticipated “hidden gem” on my radar before VIFF began– after all, Bi Gan won the prize for best emerging director at Locarno at only 26 years old – Kaili Blues ended up being one of the most enthralling pictures I saw at the festival. Influenced by the slow, lyrical approach to cinema by Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Andrei Tarkovsky, Kaili Blues moves at a languorous pace, lulling the viewer into itself in an almost hypnotic way. Virtually absent of story (A doctor in Kaili undergoes a journey to find his brother’s abandoned son), the film culminates in a 40-minute single take that muddies the past, present, and future in a thematically coherent way that puts recent “single take” films like Birdman and Victoria to shame. Bi Gan isn’t interested in showing off his technical chops, but in poetically stringing his film together, stanza by stanza.
O,Brazen Age (Alexander Carson)
I’ve made no secret about my love for this film, calling it “one of the best Canadian films of the year” in my review; but my enthusiasm still runs strong. “The loose plot is stitched together around a group of artists, old friends who shift in and out of each other’s lives. Jealousy, depression, lust, ennui; each person struggles with their own tenuous grasp on life, and the film reveals the various hearts beating within the group in a nonlinear fashion, overlapping vignettes like Venn diagrams.” While not a masterpiece, O,Brazen Age connected with me on a deep, personal level, and Carson’s non-narrative collage of literature and cinema is a city on a hill which should serve as a beacon to other independent filmmakers. It’s a film committed to its artistic vision that doesn’t feel the need to pander to a commercial sensibility.
Dead Slow Ahead (Mauro Herce)
Another winner at Locarno, Mauro Herce’s documentary is a tour de force of cinema. From my review: “For over two months, Mauro Herce and his crew travelled aboard the freighter My Fair Lady, shooting 14-16 hours a day as it made it laborious journey from Ukraine to New Orleans. Blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, Dead Slow Ahead detaches itself from reality in favour of setting a science fiction, dystopian tone. Welding disparate images and foreboding sounds from deep within the labyrinthine corridors of the ship, Herce has transformed what could have been a dull documentation of life aboard the ship and imbued it with an otherworldly sense of wonder… A voyage beyond reality, constructing an alien atmosphere of indiscernible sounds and sights, Dead Slow Ahead is a masterpiece of mood and almost approaches the ever ambiguous concept of “pure cinema”.
A Midsummer’s Fantasia (Kun-jae Jang)
A film which I decided to attend on a whim, A Midsummer’s Fantasia bears some cosmetic similarities to Love And…. Besides both films hailing from South Korea, they both begin with black and white sections which are about filmmakers before gloriously bursting into color, following it up with what is perhaps a film within a film, loosely tied to the opening section. In Fantasia, Kun-jae Jang sets up an understated drama in the first half, titled “First Love, Yoshiko”, as a Korean documentary filmmaker and his assistant visit a small town in Japan while scouting locations, guided by a local civil servant. Shot in black & white, with a penchant for long takes and rambling dialogue, it flips to colour in a fireworks sequence, now titled “Well of Sakura”. Shot in the same town, with the same actors, it’s now a folksy, awkward love story between a Korean tourist and a Japanese farmer who offers to show her around. Lighthearted without adopting a cavalier attitude, the film’s minimalist nostalgia, gentle take on relationships, and understated cinematography make A Midsummer’s Fantasia a delight to watch.
And it would be remiss to avoid a few words on my favourite film of the festival: Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s ravishingly beautiful wuxia tale, The Assassin, which delves into the human interior in the midst of oblique political intrigue and assassination plots. Hou’s sensibility is an acquired taste, but his dedication to transforming classical Chinese paintings into a reality on film, in crafting a bloodless film ostensibly about violence, and transforming it into a love story.
What stands out from this list the most, however, are the countries of origin: Love And… and A Midsummer’s Fantasia are from South Korea, while Kaili Blues and The Assassin are from China. And were I to list a longer ranking of the films I viewed at VIFF 2015, many more would hail from both countries, because VIFF’s most consistent programming is featured in its Dragons & Tigers series, the largest selection of East Asian cinema outside of Asia. This remains VIFF’s crowning jewel, and is a welcome gateway into other countries and cultures.