VIFF Capsule Reviews #3

In Kadri Kõusaar’s film Mother, a young man is in a coma after being shot. He is taken care of by his mother, who has to not only wash his body and tend to his medications, etc., but also must carefully observe the various people who come to visit, as one of them may have knowledge of what happened. Also there is the huge pile of cash that her son withdrew from the bank that no one can find and everyone wants.

Kõusaar plays some lovely narrative tricks with Mother, toying with the viewer by revealing little bits of information via the characters’ hushed one-way conversations with the comatose man. We tend to know what is going on before the people in the film do, but Kõusaar deliberately isn’t always leading us down the correct path. Where the film ends up is actually hilarious, but it is the little comedic gems along the way that are the heart of the film. (How many people can peek behind the same pile of books in a bookcase to see if money is there, anyway?)

Wayne Wang returns to the director’s chair after a five-year absence with While the Women are Sleeping, starring Takeshi Kitano as a man obsessed with a much younger woman. His obsession, which includes filming her sleeping every night, is noticed by Kenji, a novelist with writer’s block looking for a story idea. If you already feel like you can guess where the film is heading… you are probably right.

The mini-genre of authors taking real-life situations and adding in imagined dramatic content is over-established; in the right hands it can be a wonderful way to capture the process of creating art (see Ozon’s Swimming Pool for a strong example), but in While the Women are Sleeping, everything is just… muddled. The real and the imagined blend nicely, but to what end? There is nothing about Kenji that makes the viewer feel invested in the story, or in the success or failure of his next book. Neither he nor the old man resonates in any way, so when the film ends, it feels like a shrug.

The world of the troubled writer is much better studied in Pablo Larrain’s wonderful Neruda. Luis Gnecco plays the poet Pablo Neruda as he flees Chilean high society after his communist leanings become unfashionable. He moves from safe place to safe place and eventually decides to outright leave the country, and all the while he feels the pursuit of a detective who was sent to track him.

While Gnecco is a fine Neruda, it is Gael Garcia Bernal who steals the film as the ever-pursuing detective; he captures his complex role brilliantly, making this easily one of the year’s top performances. The complexity comes from the relationship he has with Neruda, which I won’t share here. Suffice it to say that Neruda’s screenplay, by Guillermo Calderón, is expertly crafted, with every built-in nuance delivered to the screen by a filmmaker who understands subtlety, nuance and build-up of story. Pablo Larrain is having quite a year.

Last for today, you do not typically find horror films at festivals like VIFF, and so when one does play, and it is a strong, compelling horror film, the effects on a traditional festival crowd can be a joy to behold.

Babak Anvari has made just such a film in Under the Shadow, a tale of a menacing unseen spirit tormenting a mother and child preparing to leave Tehran during the Iran/Iraq war. There is no gore. There is no nudity. There are no big, expensive green screen digital effects. The menace is almost never seen. But Under the Shadow is disturbing, especially as a parent. (And again, watching it play for a festival audience unused to such films is… something!)

Anvari takes very standard horror storytelling tropes (an old woman who just somehow knows what the evil is, a mute boy who isn’t mute, the voice on the telephone that isn’t actually that person) and combines them into an effective whole through strong manipulation of sounds, angles, editing and point of view. And the cast, headed by Narges Rashidi, is more than capable of making us root for them. The linking of the mother’s precarious position to Iranian politics and recent history is just a nice bit of icing, but only provides a thematic blanket of sorts.

Under the Shadow does not offer much to film fans who aren’t into horror, but it is easily the best horror film I’ve seen in a decade.