RIDM 2017 Review: Don’t Miss Dragonfly Eyes!

In the Chinese docu-fiction Dragonfly Eyes, Qing Ting, a woman who has spent several years living in a Buddhist monastery decides that she must leave.

Dragonfly Eyes is one of my favourite films of RIDM 2017. It’s inventive, fascinating and more than a little disturbing.

While the dialogue in Dragonfly Eyes is read by actors, the video portion of the film is made entirely from snippets of surveillance video found on the Internet. This gives new meaning to “found footage” and it’s more entertaining to me than those films about people who get lost in the woods or the jungle and then spend an hour shrieking at each other until someone drops the camera. (Rant over!)

Qing Ting (Dragonfly) has spent the last few years living in a monastery. She was sent there for its calming effects, and considered becoming a nun, but changes are in the offing at the monastery and she does not feel comfortable there anymore.

She goes to the city and takes a job at a dairy farm. (Sounds weird when you think about it, that’s not a calm place, either. Are there dairy farms in cities? It seems so!) The work is hard, it doesn’t pay much, the bosses are disrespectful and the cows and workers are under constant camera surveillance. The people who watch the screens are watched as well.

Everyone and everything seems to be under surveillance in the Chinese docu-fiction Dragonfly Eyes.

At the farm, Qing Ting is noticed by the technician Ke Fan, and they start spending time together, visiting restaurants, and driving out into the countryside. Soon he is calling himself her boyfriend, even though she doesn’t seem to want one. Ke Fan does things that he thinks will please her, again without asking if that’s what she really wants. He’s quite violent, though not towards her. After assorted incidents that I won’t spoil here, Qing Ting loses her job at the dairy. She is insulted in her search for a new job and insulted some more once she gets one.

Ke Fan is sent to jail for several years, and starts looking for Qing Ting as soon as he gets out. It’s not easy, because she does not want to be found.

What do I mean by disturbing? Ke Fan’s violence, other violent instances we see, celebrity culture, an obsession with money and appearances, and all that surveillance video. In many places I couldn’t help but think, why would anyone need to watch or tape those places, or this activity?

Director Xu Bing collected hundreds of hours of video from the Internet to make the film. In many instances, the people who installed the cameras had not changed default passwords and other default settings, and they probably did not even know that they were broadcasting to the Internet.

Dragonfly Eyes

Country : China
Year : 2017
V.O : Mandarin, English
Subtitles : English and French (depending on the screening date)
Duration : 81 Min
Director: Xu Bing

Editing : Matthieu Laclau, Zhang Wenchao
Production : Matthieu Laclau, Zhai Yongming, Xu Bing
Writer : Zhai Yongming, Zhang Hanyi
Music : Yoshihiro Hanno
Sound Design : Li Danfeng

Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017
Dragonfly Eyes, 81 minutes long, in Mandarin with French subtitles, at Cinémathèque Québécoise, Salle Principale, 335 de Maisonneuve Blvd E.

RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs until Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at RIDM.ca for more information.

RIDM 2017: Review of documentary film Taste of Cement

In the documentary film Taste of Cement, Syrian construction workers build a highrise in Beirut, Lebanon.

Taste of Cement is a melancholy, sympathetic, and arty documentary about Syrian construction workers in Beirut, Lebanon.

They are building a high-rise apartment building near the Mediterranean shore. When their working day is over, they retreat to bare-bones lodgings in the building’s basement. No commute time! But it’s a dark place, divided into haphazard units, with little privacy, and no security for valuables that I could see. Water dripping from above leaves puddles here and there. The living quarters are quite far from the entrance, which must contribute to a sense of claustrophobia. What’s the air like down there?

Some men have makeshift beds, while others sleep on thin mattresses or pieces of cardboard placed on the floor (ouch).

When they aren’t on the job, Syrian construction workers in Beirut, Lebanon, stay in this dark basement full of puddles.

They wash their clothes in buckets and hang them on the wall. There was at least one TV down there. Many men use their phones to look at photos or news reports on the devastation back home.

Meagre evening meals include oily sardines plonked onto pita directly from the tin, and something that looked like ratatouille, eaten out of a pot. In the morning, a man used a Barbie Pink mirror while shaving. A dollar store find? A gift from a daughter?

This living arrangement is not voluntary – a sign says that there is a 7 p.m. curfew for Syrians and that violators will be prosecuted. Essentially, they are a captive workforce, even if they do get paid. I was hoping they weren’t paying anything to live in that basement.

Syrian workers in Beirut, Lebanon, must obey a curfew.

Nothing could make that basement look welcoming or arty, but the outdoor scenes are another matter. The framing is masterful and many images could be mistaken for still photos if not for waves, or changing images on far-away video billboards. Colours are beautiful – the blue sky, the blue water, orange safety vests, red poles, yellow bulldozers.

The views from the building are stunning, but the men are probably too busy with work, and trying to stay alive, to notice. Many work without hard hats, or gloves, or harnesses; they are welding and running big saws without safety glasses. Just watching is scary.

 

The film has a narrator – I was not sure if he was supposed to be a specific person, or more of an Everyman. He tells of his father who also did construction work abroad, and whose hands always smelled of cement. He and his father are part of a cycle of destruction and construction. Buildings and cities are destroyed by war and then repaired. Certainly Lebanon has seen its share of destruction. I wonder, the workers must wonder. . .when or if Syria will be repaired? After all, the destruction is still taking place.

Many business owners are eager to do it, not for any humanitarian reasons, but to earn a profit. Even back in 2016 Robert Fisk wrote about that in The Independent. In August of 2017, the Associated Press said that ”markets across the Middle East are anticipating a mammoth reconstruction boom that could stimulate billions of dollars in economic activity.”

Taste of Cement
Country : Germany, Lebanon, Syria, United Arab Emirates
Year : 2017
V.O : Arabic
Subtitles : English
Duration : 85 Min
Cinematography : Talal Khoury
Editing : Alex Bakri, Frank Brummundt
Production : Ansgar Frerich, Eva Kemme, Tobias N. Siebert, Mohammad Ali Atassi
Writer : Ziad Kalthoum, Talal Khoury, Ansgar Frerich
Music : Sebastian Tesch
Sound Design : Ansgar Frerich, Sebastian Tesch

Presented in Collaboration with CSN, Goethe-Institut Montréal, Institute of International Education, Cinema Politica, La Maison de la Syrie, Kazamaza Restaurant and Bell Media

 

Taste of Cement will be shown Friday, Nov. 17, at 7:00 p.m. at Concordia University,
1455 de Maisonneuve W., Room H-110, Montreal, as part of the RIDM film festival, which runs until Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at RIDM.ca for more information.

RIDM 2017 Review of documentary film Cielo

The documentary film Cielo takes us to Chile’s Atacama Desert where the stars shine bright and clear.

The documentary film Cielo is set in the Atacama Desert of Chile. I put Cielo on my “must-see list” after seeing extracts from the film at the press conference for Montreal’s RIDM film festival.

The film is full of absolutely stunning images of the desert, and night skies full of more stars than you could imagine. And the Milky Way! Just stunning! In time-lapse sequences, the heavens seem to be rotating. The occasional shooting star zips by.

The Atacama desert is one of the driest places on earth. That dryness, the desert’s high altitude, and the lack of air pollution and light pollution make it an excellent spot for scientific star gazing and there are several observatories there. There are traditional ones, with big domes and huge telescopes, along with the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array). That is a single telescope of revolutionary design, composed of 66 high precision antennas located on the Chajnantor plateau, 5,000 meters altitude in northern Chile.” Those antennas look a lot like satellite dishes. When they swivel in time-lapse photography they also look like a field full of disembodied ears. Very weird!

Canadian director Alison McAlpine takes us inside a traditional observatory as the dome opes and the telescope is moved into position (cue metallic noises); she talks to astronomers and to people who live in ramshackle dwellings in the desert. They share some local lore, banter about gravity, etc. Because the desert is so inhospitable, I wondered how they managed to survive there. How far do they have to travel for food, etc? One man is a miner, others are described as algae gatherers in the credits and press kit, while others are described as cowboys. I saw their animals so briefly I could not tell if they were goats, llamas or vicuña. From previous films and reading I did not think there would be anything for those animals to eat, but apparently there are some very scrubby grasses. And maybe these animals live in the edge of the desert?

There is additional astounding imagery of stars and galaxies that I thought was shot through telescopes, but the press kit revealed that most of that footage is really “organic effects” of the kind seen in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.

Now for some gentle criticism. Cielo is well worth seeing for the images, but I feel that director McAlpine’s narration does not do it any favours. It might be intrusive no matter what, but because  she is addressing the stars, rather than simply sharing them with us, I felt further removed from the film. Hearing her say “Now I can’t stop watching you, I’m trying to understand your crazy beauty,” felt weird, like eavesdropping, maybe.

Atacama Desert, astronomy, voice overs – those ingredients might remind you of Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia de la Luz (Nostalgia For the Light.) While Cielo is worth watching, it does not approach the level of that masterpiece. Guzman’s narration sounded like poetry, in Spanish and in translation, even when he was talking about the atrocities of the Pinochet era. His film juxtaposed the beauty of the stars, the mysteries of the universe with the evil of the dictatorship and the grief of the bereaved who were still searching the desert for the bodies of their murdered loved ones. You can buy or rent Nostalgia for the Light on iTunes (and elsewhere, I imagine). And you really should! Here is a link to the review of Nostalgia for the Light I wrote for the Montreal Gazette in 2011.

CIELO, directed by Alison McAlpine
Country : Quebec, Chile
Year : 2017
V.O : Spanish, English, French
Subtitles : English And French
Duration : 78 min
Cinematography : Benjamín Echazarreta
Editing : Andrea Chignoli
Production : Carmen Garcia, Paola Castillo, Alison McAlpine
Music : Philippe Lauzier

Cielo will be shown on Monday, Nov. 13 at 5:45 pm at
Cinéma du Parc 3 (the printed schedule says 6 p.m.)

Cielo is part of RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs until Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at RIDM.ca for more information.

(I found some interesting web sites while doing research for this review. I’ll add them later. Please come back to see them!

RIDM 2017: Review of Zaatari Djinn

 

Syrian refugee Fatma plays with her pet rooster in the documentary film Zaatari Djinn. The film is being shown at the documentary film festival RIDM in Montreal.

The documentary film Zaatari Djinn shows us what life is like for two girls and two boys in Jordan’s sprawling Zaatari camp, which is home for 80,000 to 100,000 Syrian refugees.

In the camp, Fatma, Maryam, Ferras and Hammoudi are at the mercy of their parents, circumstances, and the weather. The place is sometimes sunny, sometimes cloudy, often windy and dusty. The future is uncertain. But despite the many hardships, Zaatari Djinn is frequently lyrical and captivating. So far, it is one of my two favourite films on the RIDM schedule.

More than once, we hear a mother telling her children a story, beginning with the familiar: “Once upon a time…”

One tale involves a wicked stepmother – it sounds much like Hansel and Gretel, except that the evil woman plans to abandon the children in the searing desert, not in the deep, dark forest. One boy who has a real-life stepmother declares that she is evil. (After reading the press notes, I realized something I had not grasped while watching the film. The father married again after his wife died, then took yet another wife after moving to the camp. The two women don’t get along.)

Thanks to a drama class, Maryam has discovered the joys of acting, but her father does not approve, he says it is against their culture. Interestingly, the play she was rehearsing is Shakespeare’s King Lear, which has its share of father-daughter discord. The film show her happily playing soccer with other girsl, but the press notes say her father made her stop that, too.

Like girls in many countries, 13-year old Fatma argues with her mother about how old a girl must be before she can wear makeup and how much is too much. Like Maryam, Fatma clashes with her father. Unlike any girls I know, Fatma has a rooster for a pet and confidant. (When the rooster can’t be found, someone says many animals have been poisoned and maybe he was, too. Another indication the place is not warm and fuzzy. Who poisons animals?)

Ferras walks the streets of the camp, selling the sweets that his father makes. It’s the stuff often called Turkish Delight in the West; they call it raha in Syria. Making it requires lots of stirring with a big wooden stick. Ferras also buys the supplies, mostly sugar and cornstarch, which aren’t always available in sufficient quantities. Ferras doesn’t seem to have much choice about doing this work. While reading about the camp, I found an article online about Ferras and his father. The family had a candy factory in Dara’a, Syria, before the war. Most of the people in the camp are from Dara’a, though Fatma is from Damascus.

Syrian refugee Hammoudi chooses a bicycle in the documentary film Zaatari Djinn. The film is being shown at the documentary film festival RIDM in Montreal.

Hammoudi is happy when his mother offers to buy him a bicycle, and lets him choose it. He clearly knows so much about them I was surprised that the bicycle seller didn’t offer him a job. When Hammoudi accompanies his mother to the camp hospital, we see a place with modern equipment and doctors who are gentle and friendly with the children. There are many aid-group logos on the walls, and US and EU flag decals.

Hammoudi learns that he has a little brother on the way; the doctors ask him if he goes to school and if he is doing well there. (The answer to both questions is yes. Though school is mentioned several times we don’t see the inside any classrooms. Maybe the filmmakers could not get permission, maybe they did not have time for that.)

After his little brother is born, Hammoudi’s vows to protect him are so fierce they’re almost frightening. A paraphrase from memory: “I’ll kill anyone who so much as harms one hair on your head.”

Similarly, I felt distressed and uneasy watching some boys playing what might have been their version of “war“- they pointed toy guns at a playmate, and grabbed him shouting “Lock him up!” I don’t know, seeing children displaced by war playing with (toy) guns, doesn’t seem to bode well for the future.

Zaatari DjinnDirector: Catherine van Campen
Cinematographer: Jean Counet & Jefrim Rothuizen
Sound: Mark Wessner
Editor: Albert Markus
Sounddesign: Marc Lizier
Music: Alex Simu
Producers: Iris Lammertsma & Boudewijn Koole | Witfilm
Distributor: Cinema Delicatessen i.c.w. Herrie Film & TV
Contact: Nazima Mintjes (Production)
Witfilm nazima@witfilm.nl

With: Hammoudi Al-Mansour
Maryam Al-Hariri
Ferras Adnan
Fatma Al-Badawy

Duration: 90 minutes, in Arabic with English subtitles.

Zaatari Djinn will be shown on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017 at 5 p.m. in Salle 10 of Cineplex Odeon Quartier Latin, 350 rue Émery.

RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs until Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at RIDM.ca for more information.

FNC 2017 Review: The Other Side of Hope (Toivon tuolla puolen)

In a scene from Aki Kaurismaki’s film The Other Side of Hope, Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji), far left, and Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen), far right, wait for customers in Wikstrom’s restaurant.

Would it be possible to describe the films of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki without using the word deadpan? I guess so, but it’s very handy information for anyone not familiar with his work.

Another thing to know – there isn’t much talking. (We get looks, silences, and lotsa cool tunes, though!) New arrivals in Helsinki say more in their second or even third language than the native Finns do. There’s an amazing amount of smoking, considering how restricted it is Finland. Maybe it makes the chain-smoking Kaurismaki feel more comfortable when shooting.

The Other Side of Hope follows two men, before and after they meet. Khaled (Sherwan Haji), is a Syrian asylum-seeker who reaches Finland on a Polish coal boat, and Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen) is a Finn making some big changes in his life. We see him (wordlessly) leave his alcoholic wife, wrap up his small clothing business, and win big at a poker game filled with menacing undertones. It feels appropriate to refer to Wikstrom by his last name because he initially seems stiff and cold, while Khaled is someone easier to relate to.

Khaled is a mechanic who left Syria after his house was bombed and most of his family members were killed. The fact that he doesn’t even know who blew up his house – the U.S., Russia, Syria, Hezbollah, or Daesh – shows just how chaotic situation is in Syria.

Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji) is threatened by vicious thugs in Aki Kaurismaki’s film The Other Side of Hope.

Khaled had jumped onto the boat in Gdansk, Poland while fleeing a gang of skinheads. Sadly, he runs into similar thugs in Helsinki. They keep turning up, like three very bad pennies. Luckily for Khaled and our faith in people, there are others who treat him well. These include Wikstrom and the quirky employees he inherits when he buys a small restaurant called the Golden Pint. Efforts to turn it into a fusion place or a Japanese one are quite funny, in a restrained kind of way. Watch for the scene involving wasabi! Speaking of Japanese, call me crazy, but Sherwan Haji reminds me of Japanese actor Takayuki Yamada. Look him up!

With The Other Side of Hope Kaurismaki is clearly asking his fellow Europeans, and the rest of us, to have a heart, just as he did the with his earlier film Le Havre (2011).

The Other Side of Hope (Toivon tuolla puolen)
Director: Aki Kaurismaki
Cast: Sherwan Haji, Sakari Kuosmanen, Janne Hyytiäinen, Ilkka Koivula, Nuppu Koivu, Simon
Hussein Al-Bazoon, Niroz Haji, Kaija Pakarinen
Languages: Finnish, Arabic, English with English subtitles
Length: One hour, 40 minutes

FNC 2017 Review: Claire’s Camera, by Hong Sang-soo

Kim Min-hee, left and Isabelle Huppert on the beach in Cannes, France, in Hong San-soo’s film Claire’s Camera.

Claire’s Camera (La caméra de Claire) is one of two Hong Sang-soo films being shown at the Festival du nouveau cinéma this year. (The other is The Day After. You can read my review here.)

Claire’s Camera feels like the thinner, lesser effort to me, even though stars Isabelle Huppert and Kim Min-hee do seem to have a genuine rapport.

The film was shot at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and shown at the 2017 edition. So very meta!

Kim Min-hee plays Jeon Man-hee, a sales agent at a Korean film company. Man-hee is astounded when her boss, Nam Yang-hye (Chang Mi-hee) invites her out for coffee and then fires her in a puzzling, roundabout way. She mentions Min-hee’s good nature and big heart but also accuses her of being dishonest. We have no idea what she’s talking about and clearly Min-hee doesn’t, either. Does the boss think Min-hee has been dipping into the petty cash?

Actually, the problem is love, not money. Though other reviewers have gone into more detail about this, I’ll just say that it would have been more logical for Nam Yang-hye to be angry with Director So Wan-soo (played by Jung Jin-young). He is at the festival to show his film and she is there to promote it and sell its rights. Of course, humans are not always logical and Nam Yang-hye is not in a position to fire Director So, either.

Isabelle Huppert plays the Claire of the title. She is a school teacher on vacation who has come to Cannes for the first time. (Cue laughter from the film audience, since Huppert has been there many times before. More laughter when she tells Director So that French “is a very difficult language to learn.”) The camera of the title is a Polaroid, which makes it easy for Claire to show her photos to others, or to give them away, if she chooses to. She claims, in a New-Agey kind of way, that her subjects won’t be the same after she takes a photo of them. It’s like a cousin of the belief that a photo will steal your soul.

Jung Jin-young, left and Isabelle Huppert in Hong Sang-soo’s film Claires Camera.

As she wanders around the beach and smaller streets of Cannes (no red carpets!) Claire meets and spends time with Man-hee, Nam Yang-hye and Director So, which seems a bit contrived. Claire doesn’t speak Korean; the Koreans don’t speak French, so English will have to do. The results are mildly comical but also genuinely awkward. Ditto for Director So’s remark that “95 % of my mistakes in life were because of alcohol.”

A very large dog sprawls on the sidewalk in several scenes, which gives the characters a chance to make a fuss over him. What a lucky break for Hong Sang-soo! The poor creature seems exhausted and/or bored, though. Or maybe he was too hot? (You can see him in the trailer below, where he is identified as “BoB the café dog.”)

I did not hate Claire’s Camera by any means, I just found it to be a little thin. It’s only fair to say that there are many reviews on the Internet written by people who enjoyed it more than I did. Check them out, too!

Claire’s Camera (La caméra de Claire)
Directed by Hong Sang-soo
Cast: Kim Min-hee, Isabelle Huppert, Chang Mi-hee, Jung Jin-young
Languages: In Korean, French and English with English subtitles
Length: 69 minutes

FNC 2017: Review of Hong Sang-soo’s The Day After (Geu-hu)

In this scene from Korean film The Day After, Song Ah-reum (Kim Min-hee) is ready to begin her first day working at a small publishing house. The Day After is directed by Hong Sang-soo.

On her first day at a new job, Song Ah-reum (Kim Min-hee ) is insulted and slapped by the wife of her boss, Kim Bong-wan (Kwon Hae-hyo). Kim runs a small publishing house and Song is his only employee. Song had no way of knowing that Kim had been having an affair with her predecessor, Lee Chang-sook (Kim Sae-byeok). Now that she does know, is she seeing the “getting-acquainted” lunch she just had with him in a new light? Was he grooming her to be his next conquest?

Kim keeps saying “it’s not her!” but his wife, Song Haejoo (Jo Yoon-hee) does not believe him. Song Ah-reum’s forehead is wrinkled in thought as she watches the two of them bicker. Their marriage might be in trouble, but they still have a bond of sorts, after all, while she is the true outsider. As a woman, she might naturally sympathize with Song Haejoo, but not after being hit several times and being called a shameless hussy (or the equivalent.) Her boss HAD seemed like a nice guy (though maybe a bit condescending). Obviously, he isn’t so nice, after all.

“A man behaving badly” would describe most of the Hong Sang-soo films that I’ve seen, and it certainly fits The Day After. While Kim’s wife frequently calls him a liar, he usually just clams up and says nothing at all, or asks “Are you serious?” rather than answer her questions directly.

Confrontation! In this scene from HongSang-soo’s film The Day After, Song Ah-reum (Kim Min-hee) left, watches her boss, Kim Bong-wan (Kwon Hae-hyo) argue with his rightfully suspicious wife, Song Haejoo (Jo Yoon-hee).

The film is shot in black and white, and moves around in time, as Hong’s films usually do, showing Kim Bong-wan at home (not very often!) in his office, and in restaurants eating and drinking (drinking a lot!) with Chang-sook or Ah-reum. We see Kim on the streets, too, walking with one of the women or by himself. He walks a lot, because he’s trying to figure things out, because he lives far from his office, because he has a guilty conscience? Could be any and all of those. Much of this walking takes place in darkness, at night, or in the very early morning hours; it’s not always clear which. At one point he tries to jog, seemingly confirming his wife’s suspicion that he is trying to improve his appearance for someone other than her.

Sometimes Kim Bong-wan even cries on his solitary walks, but I’m not at all convinced that this means he loved Lee Chang-sook, maybe he just misses having someone, other than his wife, to be with. And drink with.

Lee Chang-sook and Song Ah-reum are both young and pretty and Song Ah-reum seems quite brainy, too. While Song does tell Kim that he is one of the best critics in Korea, he doesn’t come across as exceptional in any way. That did lead me to wonder, why did Chang-sook fall for him? Does proximity breed affection? Was she bored? Very lonely, far from home, with no friends in Seoul? Can Kim be really charming when he puts his mind to it? (If Hong had chosen from among my fave actors for this part, I might not wonder as much. Probably that’s exactly why he did not choose them. Sorry, no offence is intended toward actor Kwon Hae-hyo.)

I wonder: Does Hong Sang-soo know about U.S. comedian Stan Freberg? At one point, the two lovers are locked in a passionate embrace while they exclaim “Bong-wan!” “Chang-sook!” over and over. Do a Google search on “John and Marsha,” you’ll see what I mean.

Things I found amusing: When Kwon Hae-hyo eats with his wife, he slurps his soup and munches his kimchi very noisily. He is much more restrained when eating with his assistants.

Meta or gossipy aspect: Director Hong Sang-soo left his wife of many years for actress Kim Min-hee, who has now appeared in four of his films. You might know her from Park Chan-wook’s film The Handmaiden.

Montrealers can see The Day After at the Festival du nouveau cinéma on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017 at 5:30, in Salle 17 of Cineplex Odeon Quartier Latin, 360 rue Emery, métro Berri-UQAM.

 

The Day After (Geu-hu, 그 후)
92 minutes long
In Korean with English subtitles
Written and directed by Hong Sang-soo
Cast: Kwon Hae-hyo, Kim Min-hee, Kim Sae-byeok, Jo Yoon-hee

FNC 2017: What to see Thursday, Oct. 12 at the Festival du nouveau cinéma

Anne Gruwez is an examining magistrate in Belgium. She’s smart, funny, sarcastic and many other things, too, as revealed in the Franco-Belgian documentary Ni Juge, Ni Soumise. (The film is being marketed with the English title So Help Me God.)

I was a bit disappointed that I only had time to see two films at the Festival du nouveau cinéma yesterday (Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017). On the other hand, I liked those two very much. In fact, they were among my favourites so far, so things worked out pretty well in the end.

Both films will be shown again on Thursday, so, if you live in Montreal, maybe you can enjoy them, too. Luckily for potential viewers, the two films will not be shown at the same time (I hate when that happens!) though they follow each other quite closely.

I hope to review them properly soon, but for now, here are the synopses and screening times, from the FNC web site.

Ni Juge, Ni Soumise

This documentary is a France-Belgium co-production. Co-directors Jean Libon and Yves Hinant will take part in a Q&A after the film.

“The cult documentary series Strip-Tease adapted for the big screen. Deadpan Belgian humour that pokes at sensitive places. Uneasy laughter abounds. A judge who’s seen all the evil there is to see reopens a deeply sordid cold case. At the same time, a string of cases crosses her desk, reflecting the ills of an entire society and the absurdity of a world where sometimes all you can do is laugh. A relentless exercise in voyeurism, set as a trap for the viewer, who is left with no choice but to question himself.”

Ni Juge, Ni Soumise
Directed by Jean Libon, Yves Hinant
With judge Anne Gruwez and assorted Belgian residents and citizens
In French, with English subtitles
99 minutes
Thursday. Oct. 12, 2017
Program #243 17:00
Cineplex Odeon Quartier Latin Salle 17
350 rue Émery, Metro Berri-UQAM

Nyokabi Gethaiga in the Kenyan film Kati Kati, part of the selection at the Festival du nouveau cinéma in Montreal.

Kati Kati

Kenyan film Kati Kati won the FIPRESCI prize at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it’s also Kenya’s entry in the foreign language Oscar race.

“Tormented souls caught in limbo must face their demons and come to terms with their guilt in this poetic, unsettling film from Kenya. For his debut feature, Masya serves up a meditative storyline about spirits stranded in an odd village. A sort of No Man’s Land, the site is really a purgatory where each soul must confront past shame and regrets. A singularly inventive film that’s galaxies away from the more familiar representations of the African continent.”

Don’t let the words “tormented” and “unsettling” in that synopsis scare you. Concentrate on the “poetic” and “singularly inventive” aspects. And feel free to complain to me if you don’t like it. Seriously! It’s quite special, though, so I think audiences will like it very much.

Much of the dialogue is in English. When people speak Swahili or Sheng (Swahili-based slang) there are English subtitles.

Kati Kati
Written and directed by Mbithi Masya
Cast: Nyokabi Gethaiga, Elsaphan Njora, Paul Ogola
75 minutes long
Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017
Program #239 19:15
Cineplex Odeon Quartier Latin Salle 16
350 rue Émery, Metro Berri-UQAM

The Festival du nouveau cinéma continues until Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017. Visit the festival’s web site for more information about the films, events and ticket prices. You can buy tickets online.

FNC 2017: Review of Thai film Samui Song

In the Thai film Samui Song, Vi (Chermarn Boonyasak) is a troubled sopa-opera star.

Samui Song is a Thai film noir from Pen-ek Ratanaruang, the director of Last Life in the Universe, Invisible Waves, Ploy, and Headshot. At least one reviewer has compared it to The Postman Always Rings Twice, but it’s much twistier than that.

Vi (Chermarn Boonyasak) is a soap-opera actress married to French millionaire Jerome (Stéphane Sednaoui, who is a director himself). Their marriage is in trouble because Jerome has fallen under the influence of a sinister cult leader he calls The Holy One. Jerome is outraged that Vi will not swear allegiance to The Holy One (Vithaya Pansringarm), or at least attend some of his events. Vi thinks the monk is a fraud and doesn’t hesitate to say so. This alleged holy man is usually seen in the company of guys who look even more sinister than he does. Assistants? Bodyguards? Thugs or henchmen would be a better description.

In a hospital parking lot, a mysterious man who calls himself Guy Spencer (David Asavanond) asks Vi for a cigarette. Ah, classic move! What will happen if the world ever gives up smoking altogether? Is Spencer just trying to pick her up, or does he have something else in mind? Does he sense that she might need help with something, from a man like himself? Spencer does not have a TV show, but he’s an actor of sorts, too. Soon enough, Vi will be sorry that she met him. “Out of the frying pan, into the fire,” might come to mind.

Things don’t always play out in chronological order in Samui Song. Sometimes we see an event more than once, with extra details added the second time. There are funny bits, too, as when Vi tells her agent she’d like to work with “that weird director” a nudge-nudge reference to Ratanaruang himself. When Vi goes out at a very late hour and tells her husband she’s “getting milk,” it seemed very unlikely, and therefore hilarious to me. And the details of a particular fight scene had me wondering if director Ratanaruang has watched A Clockwork Orange.

Samui Song (Mai Mee Samui Samrab Ter)
Thailand, Germany, Norway
108 minutes
Original version in Thai
Subtitled in English
Directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Cast: Chermarn Boonyasak, David Asavanond, Vithaya Pansringarm, Stéphane Sednaoui

Samui Song
Tuesday, Oct, 10, 2017
Program #176 4:00 p.m.
Cineplex Odeon Quartier SALLE 10

Samui Song is being shown at the 2017 Festival du nouveau cinéma. Visit the festival’s web site for more information about the films, events and ticket prices.

 

Review of The Midwife (Sage Femme): Two Catherines are better than one!

Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot are the main stars of French film The Midwife (Sage Femme).

In The Midwife (Sage Femme) we get two Catherines for the price of one – Catherine Frot as Claire, the midwife of the title, and Catherine Deneuve as Béatrice, a figure from Claire’s past. For many viewers, seeing these two together will be more than reason enough watch the film.

Claire works in a small hospital where all the midwives get along; her works exhausts her but she enjoys it. Her future is uncertain, because the hospital will soon be closed (hence the “Resist” sign hanging from it). She is the single mother of Simon, who is off at medical school.

Actress Catherine Frot received maternity training and delivered six babies in the course of filming The Midwife (Sage Femme).

We hear Béatrice before we see her, as Claire listens to her voice on her answering machine. We find out later that it’s a voice she has not heard for more than 30 years.

With great reluctance, Claire goes into Paris to meet Béatrice, who is dying of brain cancer and looking to reconnect with people from her past. She needs familiar faces and moral support. Fair enough. Far as we can tell, making amends, and seeking forgiveness are not part of her plan. She seems to be the guilt-free type.

Béatrice was mistress to Claire’s father, but she left him one day without a word of explanation. It’s not clear what she was to Claire  – something between a big sister, aunt or mother figure? (Some of the critics who don’t like this film are annoyed that such things are not spelled out.) What is clear that Claire has never forgiven Béatrice – not for the affair itself, but for her departure.

We have no idea how Béatrice has been supporting herself all these years either, though a scene in a gambling den offers a partial answer. I read somewhere that those were real gamblers, not actors.

The two women have many disagreements and misunderstandings before they come to a sort of truce. (Minor spoiler, sorry, but you could figure that out from the trailer.) Though these women are straight, that’s the same pattern many romantic comedies follow, isn’t it?

Speaking of romance, Claire has a one-step-forward, two-steps-backwards one with long- distance truck driver Paul (played by Olivier Gourmet, who has worked so often with the Dardennes brothers.) Here his character is quite amiable, not glum, silent, tortured or creepy as he has often been in other roles. Paul and Claire share adjoining garden allotments. (Gardening, earthiness, sex – is it too obvious? I’m willing to let it go.)

Béatrice does not have a visible love interest, but even though she is seriously ill, she still has an appetite for alcohol (whisky and wine) and lots of red meat. Cigarettes, too! However unlikely that might be in real life, it’s a signal that she’s not yet ready to just lay down and die and that she’s still chasing pleasure, wisely or not.

Colours and clothes were among the pleasures of The Midwife for me. Though Béatrice dislikes Claire’s frumpy beige raincoat, Claire does wear a pretty blue scarf, which matches the blue couch in her otherwise boring apartment. Béatrice has an absolutely gorgeous coat in a rich, jewel-like purple. No matter how distraught she might be, she always looks good! (I also read that her film wardrobe is by Yves St. Laurent.) In a nod to Deneuve’s past ads for Chanel No. 5, you might notice a big bottle on her bathroom shelf, if you look carefully. (Nothing bad happens to it, but keeping glass bottles in rooms with hard floors seems very unwise. Don’t ask me how I know.)

In the French film The Midwife (Sage Femme) Claire (Catherine Frot) checks her image after trying on lipstick belonging to Béatrice. She takes a spritz of perfume, too. See the bottle of Chanel No. 5, almost hidden by her shoulder?

The Midwife is unusual in that Catherine Frot was not just acting in scenes set in Claire’s workplace. Frot received several days of training in a French maternity ward and delivered six babies in the course of filming. Those scenes were shot in Belgium, because babies younger than three months old cannot be filmed in France. (In the U.S., babies who “act”  must be at least 15 days old.)

Writer-director Martin Provost (Séraphine, Violette) said he wrote the film with Frot and Gourmet in mind, and he was very happy that they agreed to appear in the film. In this interview, on a British site called The Upcoming, Provost talks about that and the birth scenes.

The Midwife (Sage Femme)
Written and directed by Martin Provost.
With: Catherine Frot, Catherine Deneuve, Olivier Gourme, Mylène Demongeot, Quentin Dolmaire

In Montreal, The Midwife (Sage Femme) is playing in the original French-language version at Cinema Beaubien and Cineplex Odeon Quartier Latin, and with English subtitles at Cineplex Odeon Forum.