IFFR 2018 – A Snapshot

Les Garçons Sauvages (Bertrand Mandico)

Brimming with imagination, at face value Bertrand Mandico’s debut feature-length film Les Garçons Sauvages might look like it is all style and no substance. But its wild ride, and even wilder imagery, belies a fairly straightforward tale of transformation and stasis that has something to say about the immutability of the human psyche.

Five adolescent boys are accused of a heinous crime against their teacher. As punishment, this bande à part is sent on a voyage at sea with a Dutch captain, the idea being to break their rebellious streak and make them more docile. The captain runs a tight ship and humiliates the boys at every turn, all the while forcing them to eat a strange fruit that bears more than passing resemblance to the female genitalia. After some time the ship lands on a seemingly deserted island, full of strange vegetation that provides the boys with all the pleasures they can imagine. But is the island truly deserted, and did the captain set sail for this island on purpose?

With influences ranging from Jules Verne and Robinson Crusoe to William Burroughs’ The Wild Boys (the title of the film even a literal translation of this), Les Garçons Sauvages wears its literary references on its sleeve, something especially evident in its dialogue. Combined with the imagery and the almost exclusive use of black and white photography (excellent work by Pascale Granel), this underlines that the film is conceptual high art at its core. But Mandico uses this art to combine an adventure yarn ripped out of the early 20th century with a deeper idea, even though the full extent of the idea only becomes clear very late in the film, and the twist that preludes it for a long time seems to be just another crazy idea sprung from Mandico’s mind. In the final fifteen minutes the film clicks, and a lot of what came before starts to make more sense. Until then, the film is a highly bewildering, but also highly enjoyable pastiche of old-fashioned adventure, ’80s music videos, and homoerotic visuals that continuously stays one step ahead of the viewer. Once Mandico finally lets the audience catch up, the rewards are as bountiful as the treasures the captain brings his mysterious island companion.

An Impossibly Small Object (David Verbeek)

One of the characters in David Verbeek’s An Impossibly Small Object studies black holes, which she refers to as, indeed, an impossibly small object. In a black hole time stands still, and it is this idea that connects the two stories told in this oblique film, Verbeek’s most personal yet also his most unaffecting. As usual, his film is about human connection or the lack thereof, but also about creator and subject.

Eight-year-old Xiao Han (Lucia, single-monikered) plays with her kite in nighttime Taipei, where she is noticed by a Dutch photographer (played by Verbeek himself). Later, she seeks out her best friend Hao Hao (Chung Chen-Hung), a boy from a much richer family. She is on the brink of losing him, as his family is moving to New York. Once back home, the photographer’s brief encounter with Xiao Han, its length no longer than a single frame, makes him reflect upon his own childhood in which he also had a best friend (a girl) with whom he lost touch. On a flight back to Taipei he meets the aforementioned astronomer, which leads to an enigmatic coda in which the solution to this meditative puzzle may lie.

Solving that puzzle, however, feels like an intellectual challenge, and carries little emotional impact. A lot of this stems from the fact that the photographer’s role is undertaken by Verbeek, essentially playing himself, as he is also an accomplished photographer who frequently lives and works in Taipei. But while Xiao Han seems deeply affected by the loss of her best friend, as most eight-year-olds would be, Verbeek’s character displays little emotion. In a sense this is not surprising, since losing touch with his childhood friend happened long ago, but then it also makes the connection between the two stories less tangible. The photographer instinctively feels a connection, and the reason for that is explored (yet not explained) in the coda, but since that is where the film ends, the effect it has on him is absent and denies him a form of catharsis.

An Impossibly Small Object is a puzzling film, as it is not exactly clear why the two stories are connected, and especially not why one of the stories has to center around the filmmaker in a fictional setting. I would not call it a misfire, because Verbeek’s films always provide food for thought that lingers in the mind, but it is certainly a colder film than his previous efforts.

Life and Nothing More (Antonio Méndez Esparza)

On the surface, Antonio Méndez Esparza’s Life and Nothing More and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project have a lot in common. Besides both being set in Florida, they deal with single parents, they feature mostly (or in the case of Life, all) non-professional actors, and they focus on both the kid and the mother. Even the Italian Neorealist style influences are apparent in both, although moreso in Esparza’s film, which at times feels like a fly-on-the-wall documentary.

The film focuses on Andrew (Andrew Bleechington), a teen on the slide down into a life of crime and incarceration, and his mother Regina (Regina Williams), a local truck stop waitress who tries to provide for Andrew and his little sister Ry’nesia (Ry’nesia Chambers). Her husband is in jail, so Andrew barely has contact with his father, who does write him occasional letters. Andrew lacks a father figure, and while for a moment that seems to be alleviated with the introduction of Robert (Robert Williams), Regina’s new boyfriend, ultimately it doesn’t work out. Andrew’s altercations with his mother over his behavior reach a boiling point when his impulses cause a dramatic turn in his life.

While Life and Nothing More offers only a slice-of-life look at black communities and the devastating effect mass incarceration of the men has on them, and ultimately brings no solutions, it does convincingly show why and how it is a problem. Sean Baker’s companion piece takes a flight of fancy to give the film a bittersweet ending, depending on your interpretation. But Esparza keeps his film a little more grounded with a meeting that is worked towards for the whole running time, but is open-ended enough to give only a glimmer of hope. Anchored by strong performances from Bleechington and especially Regina Williams, a true find, this is a rawer and more subdued look at single-parenting at the lower end of American society than its better-known counterpart, and in the end a more powerful film.

Respeto (Alberto Monteras II)

Hip hop has always had a political streak. Going from the works of Public Enemy in the ’80s of the previous century to the raps of Kendrick Lamar in the present, black American artists have always found a release valve in their music to talk about the injustices they see in society. While the rappers in Alberto Monteras’ Respeto do not delve into political subjects in their lyrics, Monteras does use the hip hop subculture of Manila to create a canvas for critique on the current political situation under authoritarian president Rodrigo Duterte. Although the consequences of this man’s policies, but also those of his predecessors, are always in the background, the chokehold they have on the lives of the film’s subjects does come to the surface from time to time, and hits just as hard as the rap lyrics the central characters use when they battle each other on the mic.

Hendrix (local YouTube star Abra) is a young kid on the streets of Pandacan, Manila who dreams of becoming a famous rapper. His life revolves around the rap battles in a local club, because outside of them life in the slums is pretty dire. Hustling as a drug runner for his sister’s boyfriend, one night he and his friends try to break into a local bookstore for money to pay off a debt. It is the start of an unlikely friendship between the young rapper and the old store owner Doc (Dido de la Paz), who was a radical poet in the days of the dictator Marcos, and whose son, a corrupt policeman, forms a catalyst to lay bare the ever-turning wheel of political violance near the end of the film.

Unfortunately, Respeto is a little too tonally uneven to become the stinging indictment of the Duterte regime that it so clearly wants to be. Part of this lies in the physical portrayal of Hendrix and his two friends. Abra looks like a young Justin Bieber, and his sidekicks seem to have barely broken into adolescence. This clashes with some of their actions, which are those of kids well beyond the age of how these three are portrayed, including a budding romance between Hendrix and a prostitute whose interest for him rings false. It’s an odd choice by Monteras, since the actor who plays Hendrix looks much more age appropriate in real life. Likely the result of weighing the need of an innocent look with that of an actually talented rapper, it mars the film’s realism as it hovers between a teen drama and a politically charged Filipino 8 Mile.

Nevertheless, Monteras’ energetic direction and the exhilarating rap battles (where many of the insults probably suffer in translation from Tagalog to English), as well as a strong performance by de la Paz as the kid’s sage advisor, make Respeto a crowdpleaser. The film shines in the moments when it does make a statement, the almost poetic ending underlining the continued cycle of violence, a powerful conclusion to Hendrix’s journey.

The Rider (Chloé Zhao)

You have to believe in your dreams. But what if those dreams have become unreachable? How do you cope with giving up on your dreams? That, in short, describes the journey of rodeo rider Brady in Chloé Zhao’s poetic and intimate portrait The Rider. After Brady sustains a head injury during one of his rides, it slowly starts to sink in that he will never ride again. The injury has made one of his hands unreliable, which means controlling a horse, much less a bucking horse, is no longer possible. It takes time and a phase of denial for Brady to come to grips with that, as he keeps telling himself that adjustments in his life are only temporary, just to hold onto his dream a little bit longer.

Shot on the plains of South Dakota, Zhao’s film may be filled with wild bucking broncos, but her handling of the material displays great calm and insight. Her portrait of a subculture and comradery, as well as of a young man bereft of his goal in life, is tender and lived-in to the point where some scenes feel like they are ripped from a documentary about the subject. With a non-professional cast, it helps that Brady Jandreau, who portrays the central character of the same name, has fully experienced this world, as the story is mainly based on the life of this genuine rodeo rider. Jandreau turns out to be as gifted an actor as he is in breaking horses (beautifully shown in a couple of scenes), with a stoicism not unlike Heath Ledger’s Ennis in Brokeback Mountain. The scenes in which he visits a fellow rider, now completely paralysed after a fall, feel so natural you wonder if Jandreau is acting or just being himself.

But equal praise should go to Chloé Zhao for her deft control over the film, which she never rushes, and in which incident and character development come at a natural pace. Coupled with a great eye for the open spaces of South Dakota and the fiery sensuality of the relationship between horse and man, this makes The Rider a warm and loving portrait of a man who lost out on life, and of a community and lifestyle that is tightly knit. A modern western, where the only conflict is between the protagonist and his dreams.

Drown Among the Dead (Ruben Gutiérrez)

A man buried to his head, somewhere in the Mexican desert. A crazy woman with a club wrapped in barbed wire, threatening to kill him. Who are these two, how did they get here, and what is their relationship? Those who want answers to these questions should skip Ruben Gutiérrez’ Drown Among the Dead, because those answers will not come. What they will get in this debut by visual artist Gutiérrez is a fragmented narrative that deals, on the abstract plane, with the Sisyphean nature of life. If there are no answers, if everything is just a continuing cycle of more of the same, why would you continue?

There are shards of information here and there, hints that this unlikely pair – the old comedian and the young woman out for blood – know each other. But is it from a past life, or does it lie in the future? And what about the rampaging couple the old man keeps telling her about, tales told to stretch his life for just a little longer? But it’s too little to form a cohesive narrative, as Gutiérrez opts for the philosophical instead of the tangible. The absurdity of existence mirrored in the absurdity of the events and tales of the film, something like that. Interesting ideas, to be sure, but it never becomes clear what Gutiérrez actually has to say, even if he takes an hour to explore these themes. This leaves the viewer with a strange film which is well shot (a nightly lapdance of sorts comes to mind, though is it really a lapdance if the person subjected to it is buried up to his head?) and consistently intriguing, and peppered with sardonic humour throughout, but which leaves too much to the imagination to make a lasting impression.

Blue My Mind (Lisa Brühlmann)

The ‘troubled teen’ is an oft-visited subject in cinema, but no film in the genre was ever so original as Lisa Brühlmann’s Blue My Mind. Whether that originality proves to be a boost or a detriment is food for discussion, but a change in its protagonist Mia (a vulnerable and brave Luna Wedler) in the final act, a change that was looming over the film from early on, will surely have audiences talking afterwards.

The setup of the film is a common formula: Mia’s dad has accepted a new job in a different part of Switzerland, and the family has to move, uprooting Mia. Wanting to fit in at her new school, she starts hanging out with the bad girls in class, led by the bitchy Gianna (Zoë Pastelle Holthuizen). Mia tries to pick from all the forbidden fruit: shoplifting, alcohol, drugs, sex. As she has her first period, her body starts changing. The skin between her toes begins closing almost overnight, and she develops bruises all over her lower body. As she dives deeper into a world of bad behavior, even hooking up with a 35-year-old man for a sex date, she starts acting more erratic and unhinged. Something fishy is going on, and Mia spirals out of control, physically and mentally.

As a viewer, we are long left in the dark about what is going on here, although hints are dropped left and right. The idea that forms is pretty unbelievable, which means the final reveal still comes as an unexpected surprise simply because you cannot credit that Brühlmann is really going there. However, contrasted with the realism of the first two acts, Mia’s strange affliction aside, what is supposed to be the coup de grace becomes an almost laughable dip into fantasy waters. Brühlmann tries to pull some true drama from it, but the film just leaves too many questions unanswered. The film starts as a solid but unspectacular entry into the ‘coming of age’ genre, but nosedives into low-quality body horror. A missed opportunity.

Les Garçons Sauvages (Bertrand Mandico)