Editor’s Notes: The following capsule reviews are part of our coverage of the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit viff.org and follow VIFF on Twitter at @viffest.
Waiting for August
Dir. Teodora Mihai
An example of Romanian neo-realism, Waiting for August is shot in the poetic documentary mode, presenting only minor fictional elements. It tells the story of Georgina, a 15 year old school-girl, who comes of age while caring for her five younger siblings. While her mother is away working to support the family financially, Georgina bears the responsibility of motherhood. In a trying position, she must balance her familial responsibilities with her adolescent desires. For her, cleaning the house and disciplining the younger kids is as much a part of her life as doing well in school and meeting cute boys.
Through filtered lighting, the mise-en-scene within the house is soft and intimate, complementing the intimate family portrait that is depicted on screen. As eighth months pass, the characters and actors themselves grow and develop, sharing with the audience how the family has grown together under these difficult circumstances. In spite of how powerfully empathetic the film may seem, the events which unfold are all rather trivial and there is no overarching concept or authorial intention of note. As a result, Waiting for August remains little more besides creating a superfluous emotional connection between character and viewer—a connection with no consequence that is only appreciable in the moment.
To Kill a Man
Dir. Alejandro Fernández Almendras
Combining narrative economy—off screen storytelling, elliptical editing, etc.—with tight narrative pacing, To Kill a Man develops a tense and thrilling rhythm to befit its climactic titular event. Jorge, a man whose family is endlessly victimized by gang violence—one man in particular—must face his own inner demons and moral inhibitions when government agents give him the bureaucratic cold shoulder. Forced, in his mind, to take justice for himself, Almendras’ film comments on the role of justice in a society where bureaucracy and corruption exist above the law.
Though it is shot reasonably well, lens flares which are seen throughout the film cheapen its aesthetic authenticity. This artificial light which removes the film’s ostensible ontological connection to reality demonstrates rather amateur digital filmmaking. In spite of this, the film is edited rather well, and many shots throughout the film are visually appealing. In the end, the film’s script is most taut and controlled, with a moral impetus to keep one thinking long after the credits roll.
Dir. Daniel Ziv
Coming from Indonesia, this highly entertaining and exceptionally well told documentary features three street musicians from Jakarta who live well under the poverty line. Director Daniel Ziv, who lived amongst these three charismatic personalities for over five years, shooting over 250 hours of footage, uses their unique stories as a vantage point to deal with more pressing issues such as poverty, humanity, freedom, and social class.
With poverty as their common denominator, Jalanan treats each of its central figures as pieces of Indonesia itself. In this way, their change becomes an allegory of a changing Indonesia. With the three characters ultimately at major crossroads in their lives, Indonesia, which is consistently brought back and forth between the foreground and background of the narrative’s focus, is seen undergoing rapid developments itself. The film is thus a highly sincere, authentic, and valuable depiction of Indonesian life. To top it off, the music throughout Jalanan is excellent and furnishes a great deal of emotional resonance.
Journey to the West
Dir. Tsai Ming-Liang
Perhaps his most challenging and austere film yet, Ming-Liang’s follow up to the divisive Stray Dogs (2014), strips away any semblance of narrative and action. An example of pure, meditative cinema, Journey to the West is a triumph in film form and an exceptional exercise in film language. A poetic depiction of life and spirituality, the film imparts a sense of itself into the viewer—its sense of being in time, or more accurately, its sense of finding eternity within time.
A monk slowly walks west (presumably). He is the embodiment and conveyance of constant change, the foundation of Buddhist thought. Holding onto the notion of impermanence, this man’s slow but continuous movements are contrasted with the actions of bystanders who are always in a state of stop-and-go. The monk, however, never stops; his every slight movement thereby becomes an expression of an instance in time. Each instance, acutely realized in his measured movements, renders time senseless, inscrutable, and so minute that it feels as though time stands still. But like a pebble rippling in still water, there is constant change and flux, and there is perpetual movement—both of object and of time—as the monk inches forwards. There is a great sense of eternity in this.
Photographed beautifully with a keen eye for lighting, Journey to the West is a film unlike any other. More perhaps than any other film, it provides the possibility of film as meditation or prayer. There is a certain ethereal quality in the monk’s liveliness, an ethereality that imparts, to the viewer, a similar meditative calm and a similar mastery of time.
Dir. Joanna Kos, Krzysztof Krauze
Kos and Krauze’s Papusza is a gorgeously realized portrait of gypsy life in the 20th century seen through the life of its titular character. Told in a non-linear fashion, the film spans 61 years and focuses on major events, such as the second world war, which led to the ultimate disintegration of gypsy culture in Poland.
Based on the actual history of Polish gypsies, Papusza details how a woman’s literacy came to betray her and her people’s culture. Though providing wisdom, the curse of literacy lies in its invitation of corruption. Even poetry, as spoken by Papusza, may become corrupted by an entitled person—by ego.
While the narrative is strong, and the story’s details are interesting, the film deserves its accolades if only for its visual mastery. From the first shot of this black-and-white toned film, a dazzling array of incredible landscapes and architecture fill the screen. The film, as a result, works even greater as a poetic and observational mood-piece than as a fiction feature. An excellent film in either regard, Papusza is certainly a film to be seen and felt to be heard.