Monday, October 08, 2007

Dispatches from VIFF

Cinema, Cafes, Crêpes, Curry, Beer and plenty of rain:

24 films in 6 days!! That total is even more remarkable considering I only started with two films on Day 1 and only viewed a single entry on my last day. I missed out on a further 10 days of the festival which would have enabled me to catch even more vintage films. For now, 6 rain soaked cinematic days was a perfect tonic.

Day 1: The journey starts:

5 am. Quiet, silent sleepy city. The drive from Calgary to Vancouver took a shade under 10 hours because of the lack of traffic encountered leaving that early in the morning. A few snow flurries on the way, some rain but other than that, it was smooth driving. Luckily, I was not the one behind the wheel as my good friend drove me to the promised film land.

Two films -- Silence vs Noise, Inner vs External conflict:

Films seen:

  • In Memory of Myself (2007, Italy, Director: Saverio Costanzo)
  • Soo (South Korea, 2007, Director: Sai Yoichi)

    7 pm: I could not have picked a more difficult movie to start my film experience with. The Italian film In Memory of Myself is set inside a monastery and shows a man's (Andrea) struggle to give up the outside world for a life in religion. The long silent takes allows one to fully contemplate the spiritual difficulties Andrea is going through. A captivating film that forces one to think about the relevance of a life spent in devotion to religion.

    Soo on the other hand is the complete opposite of In Memory of Silence. The first few minutes of the film offer some quiet before the loud car crashes, bullet firing, slicing, dicing and chopping take place. The film clearly has been influenced from Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance but Park Chan-wook's films have a solid framework within perfectly encapsulates the violence. Whereas, in Soo the needless scenes of killings reduce the film's dramatic impact and end up turning the movie into a cartoon where the bad guys refuse to die despite being sliced in half and shot multiple times. The story of a brother avenging his twin's murder has been covered before as well.

    Day 2: 5 films, Asian delight:

    Films seen:

  • Times and Winds (Turkey, 2006, Director: Reha Erdem)
  • Slingshot (Philippines, 2007, Director: Brillante Mendoza)
  • Ploy (Thailand, 2007, Director: Pen-ek Ratanaruang)
  • Foster Child (Philippines, 2007, Director: Brillante Mendoza)
  • Secret Sunshine (South Korea, 2007, Director: Lee Chang-Dong)

  • All 5 films were very good but the two Mendoza films are simply outstanding. Both films are shot in a verite documentary style outlining everyday life in the shanty slumps of Philippines. Slingshot depicts how corrupt politics can thrive on the backbone of poverty while the slum residents struggle to make a living. Foster Child looks at foster families not only in Philippines but how such families inter-relate with their American counterparts.

    Tony Rayns along with Brillante Mendoza:

    The films are remarkably shot with the camera smoothly flowing between long shots and close-ups. The visual style seems even more impressive considering that Slingshot and Foster Child took about 11 and 12 days in shooting time respectively, which is just an incredible feat as the films were shot in location in tight quarters of a real slums. In the Q&A session, Mendoza mentioned that he and his crew found a way to integrate some of the actors with the slum residents to produce such free flowing films. I could not help but think of Jeffrey Jeturian's brilliant The Bet Collector (Kubrador) which is shot in a similar manner in a slum. As film critic and VIFF programmer Tony Rayns highlighted that it is truly remarkable that one person managed to make two such outstanding films in one year!

    The day got off to a very good start with the Turkish film Times and Winds. A beautiful film which looks at simple village life during different times of day and through the passage of seasons. The film mainly focuses on three children and how they learn to adapt to the changing world around them.

    In between the two Mendoza films is another balanced work from Thai filmmaker Pen-ek Ratanaruang. Even though Christopher Doyle has not shot this film like Ratanaruang's previous efforts (Last Life in the Universe, Invisible Waves), the visual images (shot by Charnkit Chamniwikaipong) still convey the cool bluish tint as Doyle's previous collaborations with Ratanaruang did. The main story of Ploy revolves around a marriage in a flux and takes place mostly in a hotel room. Like his previous films, a touch of murder hovers over the film but it is far more delicate than in his older ventures. What is interesting this time around is that Pen-ek Ratanaruang blurs the line between reality and dreams as each character's dreams are spliced with the cinematic reality that is taking place. Initially, the dreams and reality may seem confusing but gradually it becomes easier to distinguish between what is fabricated and what really is happening.

    The night ended with a well tuned Korean flick, Secret Sunshine. The film starts out with a single mother, Shin-ae(Jeon Do-yeon) moving to Miryang (the town name translates to secret sunshine) with her younger son. Shin-ae is shown to be carefree and some of her decisions lead to tragic incidents. This is where the film takes us on a roller coaster of a journey as we literally see her character break down on screen. The acting is fabulous and no wonder Jeon Do-yeon was awarded as best actress in Cannes. Even when we think that her character might get some hope, events happen which shake her foundation and leave her in a worse situation than she found herself in to begin with. To director Lee Chang-Dong's credit, he has included the wonderful character of Jong Chan (Song Kang-Ho) in the story. No matter what the situation is, Jong offers support to Shin-ae and as a result provides a positive ray of light in her otherwise dark life -- he is the counter balance to all the negativity that takes place in the film.

    Day 3: 6 films + 1 short, Documentary galore

    Films seen:

  • The Man from London (France/Germany/Hungary, 2007, Director: Béla Tarr)
  • Drowned in Oblivion (Belgium/France, 2006, Director: Pierre-Yves Vandeweerd)
  • My Winnipeg (Canada, 2007, Director: Guy Maddin)
  • Keepers of Eden (USA, 2007, Director: Yoram Porath)
  • The Counterfeiters (Austria/Germany, 2007, Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky)
  • Useless (China, 2007, Director: Jia Zhangke)
  • Our Ten Years (China , 2006, 9 min, Director: Jia Zhangke)

  • The short running time (approx 80-85 minutes) of three docs (Drowned in Oblivion, My Winnipeg and Keepers of Eden) allowed me to pack in 4 films before 5 pm. Although, watching these movies involved plenty of rushed walks between the Empire 7 Granville theaters to the Pacific Cinematheque. Overall, it was a good balanced film day which covered a few different genres and story ideas.

    Béla Tarr's The Man from London is a stylish black and white film with a touch of noirish elements. The film is too gorgeous to remove one eye's from even for a minute and the leisurely moving camera ensures we soak up every element within the frame. Although, I preferred Tarr's previous film Werckmeister Harmonies because in that movie the tension kept mounting until a chaotic climax. Whereas, in The Man from London very early on the clock starts ticking down to an expected climax after a man recovers a mysterious brief case of money.

    The Belgian documentary Drowned in Oblivion is the story about a group of men captured and tortured during Mauritania in the 1980's. The men narrate their experiences while the camera shows us black and white images of the path via which the men were captured and eventually tortured. This simple tactic of showing us the locations from where the men were taken hostage while their voices in the background describe the experiences allows us to fully grasp the horror of their situation.

    I never lived in Winnipeg but lived in a small town 1 hour from Manitoba's capital. Going to Winnipeg was a big thing in those days because it was the big happening city. Over the years, I have returned to Winnipeg a few times and I always find myself relieved to leave the city. So with those sentiments in mind, I found Guy Maddin's poetic documentary My Winnipeg quite funny. The film contains some typical Canadian humour which could relate to other Canadian cities as well. Minus the sleep-walking though. And, yes the winter in Winnipeg was brutal. So I can understand Maddin's repeated urge to leave the city as that was something I often found myself saying while walking bundled in the freezing cold streets.

    There have been a handful of documentaries in recent years that have showed the exploitation of natural resources in South America. Keepers of Eden goes a step further and shows the environmental damage that results when oil companies have free reign over land development. The footage of oil corrupted rivers and land is nauseating as are the scenes of the locals bodies infected by the presence of petroleum in their water supply. Such films are relevant as they help bring to light issues otherwise ignored by the media.

    The Counterfeiters is a well made film about a forger who made plenty of money while producing counterfeit currency during World War II. After the Nazis imprison him in a concentration camp, he is forced to produce fake American and British currency to help in the Nazis quest to destroy their enemies economies.

    I was looking forward to Jia Zhangke's documentary Useless and it does not disappoint. But before the film I found a real treat in Jia Zhangke's short film Our Ten Years. In a few minutes, Jia Zhangke manages to show how the progress of time may not eliminate loneliness but leads to the disappearance of art thanks to advances in technology.

    Useless looks at clothing in china through three avenues, clothing industry who manufacture the same clothes at a rapid pace, a fashion designer who strives to create unique clothing and the individuals who tailor clothes designed to fit an individual. We are also given a beautiful look at clothes without a human body and even the naked body without any clothes. Such poetic shots only highlight the relevance of clothes in some people's lives.

    Day 4: Music and the pursuit of women

    Films seen:

  • Great World of Sound (USA, 2006, Director: Craig Zobel)
  • Help Me Eros (Taiwan, 2007, Director: Lee Kang-sheng)
  • The Girl Cut in Two (France, 2007, Director: Claude Chabrol)
  • Dans la ville de Sylvia & Unas fotos en la ciudad del Sylvia (Spain, 2007, Director: José Luis Guerin)

  • The day started off with a pleasant surprize in the form of Great World of Sound. I had no idea what to expect from this film but it is a satiric look at a small American music producing studio. We came across young men trained to be music producers in search of raw talent but the film shows how these men are encouraged to act more like car salesmen, only looking to extract money from eager musicians.

    I was eager to see Help Me Eros. The movie is directed by Lee Kang-sheng whose plays the lead in most of Tsai Ming-liang's movies. I was curious to see how Lee Kang-sheng would do on his own. But unfortunately, the film still carries a huge stamp of Tsai Ming-liang (who produced this film). Lee Kang-sheng plays a more confident version of the same character seen in Tsai Ming-liang's films. His character is still lonely and suicidal but is more bolder and reckless -- he picks up hookers with ease and is not afraid to take risks with his money. The difference in the character is evident from the sex scenes which are much more adventurous than the ones in The Wayward Cloud. Although, there is an awkward self-gratification scene included in the movie which really should have been left out. But as uncomfortable as that scene is, its presence highlights the loneliness of a female character and the lengths she would go to satisfy herself.

    The Girl Cut in Two is a refreshing and entertaining film that looks at the complicated relationship between men and women. The first hour is playful as we see the sexual games between the male and female characters. Even though the film takes on a serious tone after the hour mark, it is an engaging watch.

    The ghosts of Sylvia -- the two films of José Luis Guerin

    Three pics of Guerin (center):

    The highlight of the night had to be the two Guerin films. Simple yet beautiful! Dans la ville de Sylvia looks at a man's return to the city where he met the lovely Sylvia 6 years ago. It is clear that the man is haunted by memories of Sylvia as he seems to encounter her ghost in every female he comes across. Unas fotos en la ciudad del Sylvia is a collection of black and white pictures mixed with text which shows how Guerin's film developed.

    While Dans la ville de Sylvia is like a short story, Unas fotos en la ciudad del Sylvia is a personal travel diary which contains Guerin's thoughts, feelings and photos. Vancouver was lucky enough to have the world premier of Unas fotos en la ciudad del Sylvia and before the film was shown, Guerin mentioned that he was hesitant to show this to a public because it was such a personal work. After watching the film, it is clear why Guerin was a bit cautious. fotos really gives an insight into his mind as he muses about women, literature and even managed to capture some of them in pictures.

    Both films are equally enjoyable on their own but are connected in an inseparable way as well. In Dans la ville de Sylvia the man keeps a diary about Sylvia. We only get a full look into this diary in fotos while Dans la ville de Sylvia transforms the still fotos into a moving picture. But the entire film Dans la ville de Sylvia can be found within fotos whereas, we only get a brief look into the fotos diary in Dans la ville de Sylvia. In that sense, fotos is a larger work while Dans la ville de Sylvia is only a subset of the complex world of Guerin's Sylvia. It is hard to say which I prefer -- Dans la ville de Sylvia is a rich visual work while fotos is a living breathing photo journal. So if I am in the mood for some graphic literature, I would opt for fotos but if I want pure visual imagery, then I would go with ville.

    Day 5: Lust and border crossings

    Films seen:

  • Euphoria (Russia, 2006, Director: Ivan Vyrypaev)
  • Bad Habits (Mexico, 2007, Director: Simón Bross)
  • The Duchess of Langeais (France, 2007, Director: Jacques Rivette)
  • Sounds of Sand (Belgium, 2006, Director: Marion Hänsel)
  • Import Export (Austria/France, 2007, Director: Ulrich Seidl)

  • Simplicity won out again. The story of the Russian filmEuphoria could not be more simple -- an affair and a husband's quest for revenge against his wife and her lover. But pulsating and lively music combined with breath-taking visuals made this film such a delightful experience. If the characters were not speaking Russian, one could have mistaken the plain farmlands to be that of Saskatchewan.

    Bad Habits is an interesting look at a few characters who lust for food and sex. We see a nun who can't control her urges for sinful cakes and pastries while a little girl can't stop herself from having desserts. The little girl's mother suffers from anorexia and tries to force her daughter to lose weight. While the husband can't fight his urge for sex.

    Even though I knew that The Duchess of Langeais would be completely different from all the films I saw at the festival, I could not ignore this work by Rivette. As expected, the film contains perfect performances and impressive set design. But I can't see the relevance of this film in this day and age. The film focused on the sexual games between the countess and the general, something which has been covered enough times before. The political games that I am sure existed in Balzac's book are not even mentioned.

    Sounds of Sand is the story of an African family's journey across the sub-Saharan desert in search of water and a better life. Along the way, they come across hostile gangs on either side of the border who have no hesitation in firing bullets or kidnaping people. There are some amazing visuals of the barren white sanded deserts of Djibouti.

    Import Export vs Edge of Heaven:

    Import Export is an engaging look at the lives of two characters who cross the border to make a living -- Olga leaves Ukraine for Austria while an unemployed Austrian youth heads to find some work in Ukraine. The film is shot in a documentary style which gives realism to many of the sequences. But I can't talk of this movie without thinking about Fatih Akin's Edge of Heaven. Both Cinema Scope (Issue 31) and Cineaste (Fall Issue) compared the two films and trashed Edge of Heaven. The two articles complained about Akin's screenplay and lack of subtleness. Now some of the criticism is justified. Akin's film is too neat and tidy with the screenplay appearing to tie all the loose ends appropriately. Also, in many scenes, Akin makes sure the camera turns back on a spot again just to ensure the audience didn't miss the obvious. Yes, this is not subtle. But neither is Ulrich Seidl's film. In Import Export, Seidl keeps the camera focused in between a woman's leg in the internet porn office. We know what happens in this office and we didn't need to see all the detailed shots of women going about their business.Ulrich Seidl has shot his sequences without much dialogue in a verite style. But he has purposely included sequences which push the poverty and helplessness of the character (for example, the choice of jobs that Olga gets helps one to sympathize with her). So his screenplay can also be considered manipulative.

    While Import Export is a distanced cold look at the struggles of people in two countries, Edge of Heaven is an emotional look at the connections between two nations. Import Export starts with life and ends with death. Seidl makes sure the last words we hear before the screen fades to black is "death". The manner with which the film ends with such a word is clearly contrived. But in Edge of Heaven death is never shown at the end yet it is clearly implied. Akin ensures that the film ends on a poetic note which is in keeping with the emotional focus of his film. Whereas, Seidl's film is emotionless -- it starts and ends in utter coldness. I prefer both movies and liked what each director did. I just can't put one movie down compared to the other as both films approach their topics in completely different manners.

    Day 6: Final day:

    I only planned one early morning movie (10 am) before catching my flight in the afternoon. And it was a perfect choice to end the festival with. Abdullah Oguz's Turkish film Bliss is a wonderful shot love story set against the backdrop of honor and old traditions.

    Film Ratings and Preferred movies:

    The quality of most movies was such that ratings seem meaningless. There were some clear masterpieces and the rest made for some very good viewing. In the end, I didn't regret seeing any film at the festival.

    Rating (out of 10) and films in order of preference:

  • Foster Child -- 10
  • Dans la ville de Sylvia & Unas fotos en la ciudad del Sylvia -- 10
  • Slingshot -- 10
  • Our Ten Years (short film) -- 10
  • Euphoria -- 9.5
  • Bliss -- 9.5
  • Secret Sunshine -- 9
  • In Memory of Myself -- 9
  • The Girl Cut in Two -- 9
  • Import Export -- 9
  • Times and Winds -- 8.5
  • Help Me Eros -- 8.5
  • Ploy -- 8.5
  • Bad Habits -- 8.5
  • Sounds of Sand -- 8
  • Useless -- 8
  • The Man from London -- 8
  • My Winnipeg -- 8
  • Drowned in Oblivion -- 8
  • Great World of Sound -- 8
  • The Counterfeiters -- 8
  • Keepers of Eden -- 7.5
  • The Duchess of Langeais -- 7
  • Soo -- 6.5

  • Cafes:

    Vancouver is packed with cafes. I have not come across any other Canadian city with as many cafes in downtown as Vancouver has. In that sense, it was appropriate that this city had the world premier for José Luis Guerin's film Unas fotos en la ciudad del Sylvia. If it were not for cafes, the core of that film would not have existed.

    While the big coffee chains dominate most street corners, it is still possible to find independent places. One of my goals was to find a new cafe everyday. I managed to do so and not miss a single film in the process either.


    I first came across Cafe Crepe in Vancouver back in 2000. That time, there was only one location on Robson street. But when I visited the city last year, I found a second location across from the Empire 7 Granville theaters where most of VIFF's screenings were held. The venue was open late and I managed to snack on some sweet crepes after a late screening. This time around, I found myself having a breakfast crepe on more than one occasion for the 10 am screenings. Yummy!


    The international cuisine in Vancouver is second to none. Another goal of mine was to try as many different types of food during my stay. But I could not go to proper restaurants as I often had less than an hour in between my shows. Still I managed to find time for some great Japanese and Brazilian food. But one of the highlights had to be the delicious Indian food found at Rangoli. Rangoli is owned by Vij's and located right next to their famous Granville street location. Getting into Vij's is not an easy task as they don't take reservations and are only open for dinner. I found locals who claimed to have waited almost 2.5 hours before they got in. So the owners started up Rangoli, a quick sit down place open for longer hours, with the idea of making their food more available. It is much easier to get a place in Rangoli and the food is quite similar to the menu in Vij's.

    If I had more time, I might have lined up for Vij's. But instead I found curry bliss at Rangoli where I dined on Day 1 before I saw any VIFF films and on Day 6 after seeing my final VIFF film.


    One of my favourite beers is Granville Island . Unfortunately as of last year, I can't get this beer in my city (for reasons unknown). So the only way I can drink this is on a trip to Vancouver. I made sure to only have this beer on every occasion in the city and made it out to the brewery's taproom where I sampled all their four beers in season.

    And lastly......


    What would Vancouver be without rain? It has rained atleast once on all my previous visits. But this time around, it rained on all 6 days with the sun only making a brief appearance for a few hours. That didn't matter much as most of my time was spent inside a warm cinema. Although, there were quite a few occasions I was soaked waiting in line for my tickets. In the following pictures, film fans waited for almost an hour in the rain to see 4 Months 3 weeks 2 days for the 10 am Sunday morning show.

    Well that's it! Amazing trip with some fascinating films. The 14 days of consecutive film festival movies has finally ended. Time to recover now.....

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