VIFF Capsule Reviews #3

Though full of discoveries, Vancouver also offers up a fair share of work from cinematic masters.

Nothing was more enjoyable to watch than Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin. A film with so many layers that it demands multiple viewings, Hou’s long-in-the-works wuxia film is what you wait for every year – a film that leaves you floored in your seat. The basic story is actually quite simple; a woman trained to be an unmatched assassin is sent out to begin doing her deadly work but hesitates when she realizes the ripples and repercussions of her actions.

What elevates The Assassin to modern classic status is the world Hou builds around the story. Whether you want to study the sets full of flowing curtains and wonderful mixes of colors, or the costumes, or the subplots based on parts of China’s history, the film is almost overflowing with amazing layers of beauty. And finally, the subplots are fragmentary, with beginnings and ends often missing, which will frustrate some viewers but for me contributes to the sense that this is a real world we are watching, and we are just privy to certain moments. A gem.

Another filmmaker approaching the master status is Yorgos Lanthimos. With previous films Dogtooth and Alps, he caught the world’s attention, putting forth a brazen mix of black humour and shocking content with aplomb. With his new film The Lobster, he moves to international stars and a shift to English and French, but retains his trademark dark humour. Setting his story in a pseudo-future where if someone cannot find a mate in 45 days they are turned into the animal of their choice, Lanthimos brings his caustic gaze to the Facebook/online match services world, where everything is reduced to “like” or “dislike,” and “match” or “no match.”

The first half of the film takes place in a hotel where the 45-day clock is ticking for everyone. Life, as the guests struggle to find a match, is carefully choreographed; everyone wears the same clothes and participates in the same activities. It is outrageous and bizarre, and seems counter-intuitive as it flies in the face of everything we know about how people meet and fall in love. But it is the film’s second half which brings the hotel’s strange ways into focus; as a befuddled guest played by Colin Farrell breaks away from the hotel and meets a group of other runaways, we are introduced to a world gone sad.

The hotel turns out to be an extension of a world where somehow, humanity has lost its will to experiment, to dare, to have the courage to be unique. It’s a society of yes-or-no, match-or-no match, correct-or-wrong. It’s appalling and ridiculous, but there are signs of familiarity to it that are scary… is the world of Facebook’s “like” button heading in this direction? Perhaps Lanthimos isn’t as far off as we would wish. A brilliant satire that may turn out to be more prescient than people want to admit.

Another master appearing in Vancouver is Patricio Guzmán, with his latest exploration into Chile’s dark history in The Pearl Button. Fans of Guzmán have followed him for decades as he simultaneously studies the horrors of the Pinochet regime and sheds light on the amazing history of Chile from the early Patagonians through to today. The Pearl Button finds Guzmán focusing specifically on water – on the water surrounding the archipelago and the main shoreline and how it contains all of Chile’s history at its bottom. The story of the early dwellers and their travels by canoe is fascinating, but the knowledge of what the titular button represents is brutal, representing yet another facet of Pinochet’s inhumanity. As Guzmán continues his tortured travels through Chile’s geography and time, I’m happy to be along for the ride.

And finally, maybe my personal favourite master filmmaker, Hong Sang-Soo, was back with Right Now, Wrong Then, yet another charming story where reality is fragmented into repeated loops to great effect. Hong may be, in my opinion, the world’s greatest cinematic storyteller working today. His films are never About Something – they are simply enjoyable tales which, on a secondary level just naturally seem to capture all kinds of intricate strands of what makes humanity tick.

Right Now, Wrong Then follows a filmmaker who has arrived in town a day early for a Q&A and meets a young woman who seems like a fan of his work. They talk, they go back to her place to see her artwork, and as in so many Hong films, they end up drinking with a merry group of people. Then the story is told again, but with little changes and reveals, with new information such as the marital status of the filmmaker changing the slant of certain repeated scenes.

As I said, Hong’s films are never about something, but they ARE about humanity, and as the film ended I realized that once again, Hong had created some of the most realistic, flawed, confused and stumbling characters of the year. There ARE big ideas and big messages to be found, if the viewer wants to find them. But for me, this is just sublime storytelling – think of Woody Allen at his early peak. Sadly, like all of Hong’s films, it appears that Right Now, Wrong Then may never get released in America. It’s a major loss for our audiences.