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This article was written By Rowena Santos Aquino on 17 Mar 2017, and is filed under Features.

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About Rowena Santos Aquino

Rowena Santos Aquino is a Los Angeles-based film lecturer and critic who writes on Asian cinemas, documentary films, and film festivals.

Of Time and the Image: A Preview of Select Asian Titles Screening at New Directors/New Films

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Co-presented by The Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the annual festival of emerging filmmakers making their debut, sophomore, or sometimes third-film efforts from around the world takes place this year on 15-26 March. Among the extremely diverse twenty-nine feature films screening at the festival are eight works representing Asian cinemas.

The striking diversity continues even among these eight works, which include Malayalam writer-director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s noirish third feature Sexy Durga (2017) and Cambodian-French filmmaker Davy Chou’s feature-length fiction debut Diamond Island (2016). With its cast of non-professional actors and occasional sweeping shots of the film’s setting of Phnom Penh, thus capturing the capital city’s ongoing development (the title refers to an amusement park in the city), the film betrays Chou’s documentary beginnings with his first ever feature, the impressive 2011 documentary Golden Slumbers. While Golden Slumbers looks to the past, particularly the pre-Khmer Rouge regime golden days of cinema of the 1960s/early 1970s, Diamond Island looks to the present and future through the experiences of an eighteen-year-old newly arrived to the city and the youth culture there. As the grandson of famed producer Van Chann, who was ‘disappeared’ by the Khmer Rouge, Chou himself is very aware of the legacy cut short of 1960s/early 1970s Cambodian filmmaking. He is but one of the increasing number of representatives of a contemporary Cambodian filmmaking culture, attested to by the 2013 film series ‘Old Ghosts, New Dreams: The Emerging Cambodian Cinema.’

Overlapping/Clashing Temporalities

The underlying weight of time is uncannily what characterises the other seven Asian titles. White Sun (2016) and By the Time It Gets Dark (2016) even more forcefully in their stories and form address the legacy and power of the past on the unfolding present, albeit in very different ways.

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Nepali filmmaker Deepak Rauniyar’s noteworthy second feature White Sun presents a strictly linear narrative of Maoist soldier/party leader Chandra Agni returning to his home village upon his father’s death. Already, then, through Chandra the film touches on the country’s 1996-2006 civil war, whose sides were the Maoists intent on abolishing the constitutional monarchy (and establishing a single-party communist republic) and the royalist government under King Gyanendra. Chandra’s arrival in the village lights an awkward flame among the villagers, particularly his brother Suraj, as they come from politically opposing sides. As the village community seeks to follow the proper customs of burial of Chandra’s father and relationships among characters emerge, the film presents a subtle and not-so-subtle microcosm of the ongoing resonance of the war. But the film cannot be reduced to an allegory, for it is just as much about the burden of tradition, particularly on women. If Chandra is a political outcast in the village, so Durga (Chandra’s former lover) is a social one, in part because she is of a lower caste and had a child by another man during Chandra’s long absence from the village. But from the beginning, Durga is presented as a strong woman; too strong, in fact, for androcentric traditions/rituals that prevail in the village. Rauniyar has a keen eye for visual metaphors that help to elaborate the burden of the past in terms of the war and tradition. Chandra’s father’s body stuck in the room where Durga had nursed him until his death provocatively invites the reading of how patriarchy persists in the village. Even Chandra is told, ‘Customs exist for a reason.’ The brothers arguing during the procession of carrying their father’s body across rough, steep terrain presents not only another very visual and physical metaphor for the civil war but also literally the weight of enforced patriarchal tradition and its absurdity. Badri, the ten-year-old orphan who lives at a bus station and accompanies Chandra to the village, is also an outcast in the sense that he, like Chandra, is a referent for the war. One of the film’s simplest yet most moving scenes is Chandra’s reaction of the utmost empathy to Badri’s outburst of anger (upon learning that he is a Maoist) by embracing Badri instead of responding with the same anger. That two children whose fathers are absent, Pooja (Durga’s daughter) and Badri, play a key role in the film’s concluding events is perhaps yet another effective metaphor, one that speaks of a new Nepal. It is certainly no accident that all of these events, which occur within twenty-four hours, are framed by news of the awaited ratification of a new constitution.

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The stunning By the Time It Gets Dark, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s second feature, creates its own unique temporality as it weaves between the past and the present through its nonlinear flow of scenes: a performance piece of prisoners and armed guards; a young couple walking across a field, the camera tracking closely behind them, their hands lightly, accidentally touching; university students (including the couple) engaging in political discussions and clandestine protest; a spacious house of wood in the countryside as a site of remembering for two different pairs of women, the younger interviewing the older; a dream of walking in the woods and seeing a girl in a bear costume (or is it her doppelgänger?) and a sparkling mushroom; a rural-urban journey by a young man who turns out to be a popular actor; a long take, direct address to the camera by one of the women at the house about her past; an homage to the opening scene of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le mépris (1963), but with the roles reversed. Such fragmentary scenes, numerous fleeting characters, and multiple temporalities, not to mention their seeming unrelatedness – thereby making a synopsis all but impossible – are nevertheless anchored spatially by the house of wood and thematically by the first pair of women who temporarily resides in it, so that they subconsciously hover over the images that come before and after their physical presence in the film. The younger woman is a filmmaker (writer-director Visra Vichit-Vadakan) writing a script based on the older woman, a writer who was a protest leader during October 1976. That period witnessed the massacre of nearly one hundred unarmed students by military/police forces at Thammasat University, Bangkok. The students were peacefully protesting the return of Thanom Kittikachorn, whose dictatorship was toppled by a student-led movement in 1973. The 1976 massacre, which included beatings and rape, continues to resonate with Thais today (even more so following the 2014 military overthrow of the country’s democratically elected government and subsequent tightening of censorship). Though not exactly necessary to know such history to feel the film’s power, it allows for a deepening of understanding of Suwichakornpong’s possible intentions, but without reducing the film to simply a political allegory, as with Rauniyar and White Sun. Suwichakornpong’s use of the house’s intricate angles/lines in which to frame the first pair of women in some sense reflects the film’s structure and ultimate focus on women as both ‘living history’ (the director) and ‘survivors’ (the writer’s correction) leading both mundane and meaningful lives. Such focus also accounts for the unnamed – and therefore simultaneously visible and invisible – young woman of intermittent presence and various incarnations in the countryside and city throughout the film

Past Perfect and Lost

In Zhang Dalei’s remarkable debut, The Summer is Gone (2016), absent is a knotty relationship between the past and present and in its place is sweet nostalgia, expressed most strongly by the film’s dedication at the end. Buttressing its nostalgia and setting is Songye Lu’s stunning black-and-white cinematography. (Not coincidentally, Lu’s previous credit is the equally stunningly-lensed Tharlo by Pema Tseden, who is the film’s executive producer.) The film takes place in the early/mid-1990s, at a suburban neighbourhood within Inner Mongolia’s capital city of Hohhot (Zhang’s hometown) during the month of August, the film’s literal title. The temporal setting is therefore on the cusp of a China initiating economic reforms and transitioning from state control to privatisation. The impact of such reforms on a community is one way of describing The Summer is Gone. A more intimate way of doing so is twelve-year-old Xiaolei’s perspective of life and family, and his desires, on the cusp of puberty. With its aching simplicity of capturing the neighbourhood – through a documentary quality to the images, static camera, long takes, and cast of non-professional actors – centered around Xiaolei’s family, comparisons with Yasujiro Ozu, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and even Hirokazu Koreeda will be inevitable.

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Zhang manages to convey that peculiar and intangible carefree, curious, and contemplative pacing that characterises summertime everydayness for a child without it feeling forced. The film’s ease/effortlessness is one of its most endearing qualities, and conspires to romanticise and defamiliarise the space. As the film follows Xiaolei and his family through different areas in the neighbourhood – great-grandmother, the community pool, the local movie theatre, a neighbour’s house, his father’s workplace – it also shows the community’s liveliness and closeness and the sense that time is standing still. In the process, we get to know the people who populate and impact his everyday: his parents, uncle, great-grandmother, the young tough in the neighbourhood, the girl whose bedroom window is right across from his. Xiaolei does not speak much throughout the film, which then allows the spectator to channel through and identify with him all sorts of feelings/ideas about the events that transpire in his family and community, particularly when the ripple effect of reforms and privatisation reach the neighbourhood, including the movie theatre and the film studio where his father works. In terse cinephilic fashion, Zhang registers this tide change by a shot of a Bruce Lee poster early in the film and later an announcement of the screening of The Fugitive. The passing of time has, indeed, never stopped moving. The family photo towards the end marks, indeed, the ending of summer and of the particular rhythm of community life as they know it.

A Presentness of Place

With his second feature Autumn, Autumn (2017), Jang Woo-jin has secured his place among the more established names in South Korean filmmaking associated with a cinema of wistful, poetic minutiae, often structured in terms of repetition-variation in connection to a specific place. Similar yet still distinct from the likes of Jang Kun-jae’s A Midsummer Fantasia (2015) and any number of Hong Sang-soo’s films, Autumn, Autumn is like a two-part audiovisual prose poem on the frail albeit persistent relationship between place and identity. In the service of drawing out each individual component and this relationship while also grounding the film and its three characters strictly in the here and now, Jang employs extraordinary long takes. Also crucial to drawing them out is acknowledging the factor of time, in part through the film’s structure. The film successively presents two separate yet simultaneous experiences at Chuncheon, Gangwon Province (the film’s actual title is Chuncheon, Chuncheon): one set of experience finds a young man, Ji-hyeon, stuck in an unsuccessful present and therefore facing an uncertain future, but also reconnecting with the past since Chuncheon is his hometown; the other one follows two friends visiting Chuncheon and remembering their respective pasts and how they colour their present during their trip. The three characters never cross paths with each other, even though they visit the same locations in the city.

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Though on the surface the film has nothing ‘spectacular’ in its imagery or story, the film is in truth a rather moving work in the way it captures, precisely in such a candid, unadorned manner, communication between people that is so honest. Such honesty achieved through an equally candid, unadorned naturalness of performance, presence, and being by the cast plays out in two standout conversations, which also neatly encapsulate the characters’ current situations. One is of Ji-hyeon and an old friend (Mo Seong-min, who also wrote and performed the film’s closing credits song) over the phone, which begins with ‘How are you?’ pleasantries and then organically develops into soul-baring thoughts that tenderly betray the temporal/emotional depth of the friendship. The other is of the two friends at a table eating and talking ever so relaxedly (one begins to wonder if their friendship is more than just that), shifting from topic to topic related to the past, while elegant gradations of sunlight and shade due to the wind frame the scene firmly in the present. Such long takes exemplify at work here the utmost respect between filmmaker and actors, as well as to the flow of conversation between characters; the result is that the words exchanged develop a beautiful volume of feelings between them and also between them and the spectator.

The Self in Time

The last two films among the Asian titles, The Future Perfect (2016) and Bonheur Académie (2016), register the weight of time more lightly, ‘trippingly on the tongue,’ and at times comically, through stories and characters that focus exclusively on the present tense of life and re/defining oneself and one’s place in it. Moreover, these two films share the quality of blurring the line between documentary and fiction. It is perhaps fitting, then, that these two films also challenge the notion of what constitutes ‘Asian cinemas.’

Buenos Aires transplant Nele Wohlatz’ solo directorial debut, The Future Perfect (2016), is simultaneously a reflection of her own experience of moving from her native Germany to Argentina and a docufiction take on the life of seventeen-year-old Xiaobin, who herself was a recently arrived figure in the city at the time of filming. In a banal sense, the film is about how one re/defines oneself and settles in a new environment, especially if one does not know the native language. It is therefore significant that the film begins with a talking head interview of Xiaobin answering, in Spanish, why-what-where-when-how questions about her presence in Buenos Aires. In the course of the film, as more details unfold about her family and her feelings towards them, this opening interview acquires a deeper significance and in retrospect expresses strongly her fiercely independent and determined nature of forging her own life and identity as an individual. It is in/through language, first and foremost, whereby Xiaobin begins to speak (literally) and re/write (figuratively) herself into her new surroundings. Apart from taking Spanish language lessons, she works (at least initially) outside of her family’s business and even carves out a social life. She presents a striking contrast to her parents’ example of living in the Argentine capital by rejecting any attempt to integrate with the environment, socially and linguistically.

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In keeping with Xiaobin’s desire for individuality, and also to better convey her sense of isolation and outsiderness, shots and scenes resolutely pivot around Xiaobin. In effect, the camera never really shows her family and (with the exception of one scene or two) prefers to focus on bodies or hands instead of faces of Argentines whom Xiaobin encounters, especially when her Spanish was still rudimentary, if not nonexistent. But part of learning a new language is the fact that initially, one is spoken rather than speaks; that is, one is confined to fitting oneself into already fixed structures. It is only after getting the basics down that one can begin to speak as, or grow into, oneself. In a more stimulating sense, then, the film addresses the highly performative aspect of language learning in relation to one’s crafting of the self and identity formation within a given space; hence the significance of adopting a Spanish name for Xiaobin. Consequently, the film’s insightful dimensions lie more with the documentary sequences with Xiaobin and her classmates practicing question-and-answers, performing role-play conversations, and learning verb tenses than with the fictionalised ones that follow her around the city (also due to the flat quality of acting by the non-professional cast). The film’s most brilliant moments are therefore when the language lessons and fictionalisation explicitly merge.

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Bonheur Académie (2016), the second feature-length film by France-based filmmakers Kaori Kinoshita and Alain della Negra, also mixes documentary and fiction elements. Unfortunately, however, the result is much less inspiring and thought-provoking than The Future Perfect. Like Wohlatz’ film, this one has as its subject the pursuit of the realisation and liberation of the self, though in more absolute and sensual terms. Unlike Wohlatz’ film, this one deals with a great number of characters by attending the actual European seminar of the Raelian movement (a ‘UFO religion’) held in Croatia. During this weeklong seminar, love, acceptance, friendship, and happiness are the only things on the agenda. To help fulfill this agenda for each and every attendee, different workshops take place that consist of exercises to deepen one’s understanding of and love for oneself and others. As the film progresses, it begins to single out one of the attendees without reason and her struggle/dilemma of finding herself during the seminar. Admittedly, one is hard-pressed to care about Lily (who is played by one of two professional actors hired for the film) and her growing interest in Arnaud (the other one). What is missing here is a thematic focus, or thesis, that would ideally express the motivation behind and unify the choice of scenes, imagery, and the character of Lily and her conflict. As such, the film sadly lacks appeal: emotional, comical, or otherwise. It is unfortunate, for such bold, vibrant colours and a certain degree of abstracted shapes and perspectives bookend the film, which provide a glimpse of a more interesting film-that-could-have-been than what actually exists between.

New Directors/New Films runs at the Museum of Modern Art through March 26.

Screening schedule

16-17 March | White Sun (2016), The Summer is Gone (2016)

18 & 20 March | The Future Perfect (2016)

19-20 March | By the Time It Gets Dark (2016)

21-22 March | Sexy Durga (2017)

21 & 23 March | Autumn, Autumn (2017)

24-25 March | Bonheur Académie (2016)

25-26 March | Diamond Island (2016)

 

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