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By Michael Sicinski
Twelve years on, the Jeonju International Film Festival’s Digital Project is only getting stronger. This unique endeavour, whose history and raison d’être has been amply chronicled elsewhere (notably by James Bell in Sight & Sound,), remains impossible to pin down. While the JDP has generally remained focused on Asian directors, the project has expanded over the years to include contributions from Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Given the wide swath of invitees, it’s hardly surprising that the films themselves have run the gamut, from austere documentary shorts and omnibus horror to narrative sketches and outré avant-garde experimentation. Certain of the contributions, such as Bong Joon-ho’s Influenza (2004), Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Worldly Desires (2005), and Pedro Costa’s The Rabbit Hunters (2007), have turned out to be major works in the respective filmmakers’ oeuvres.
Of course, Jeonju selects participants based on their successful work in feature filmmaking, and so there is only so far these directors can travel through conventional distribution channels with a featurette. World-class directors truly committed to shorts, like Apichatpong or Tsai Ming-liang, are rare. (Even the one experimental filmmaker chosen so far, James Benning, is known for his features.) So many Digital Projects end up as first drafts or alternate versions of eventual features. At times the JDP has appeared to serve its invitees primarily as a completion grant, or even as seed money, for more ambitious projects. The offer of 50 million won ($43,420 CAD) to major filmmakers for the creation of a short- to medium-length digital film has been taken by some—Song Il-gon, Tsukamoto Shinya, and Lav Diaz—to work up versions of films that would eventually be feature-length. (This year’s contribution by Vimukthi Jayasundara appears to be taking this approach as well.) In that regard, the project has served as a space for artists to generate significant new works, away from the production pressures of traditional market channels: the anti-Sundance Institute.
So this year, we find yet another new development. Two of this year’s contributors have simply gone ahead and made 70-minute features. Just as the JDP has shifted over the course of its history in terms of its presumed commitment to filmmaking on the Asian continent, 2012 throws the “shorts” requirement overboard, to uniformly impressive results. (It’s a dramatic improvement over last year’s disappointing, all-European collection. Claire Denis and Jean-Marie Straub offered decidedly minor riffs on their signature styles; only José Luis Guerín’s Memories of a Morning represented a notable contribution.) For this latest edition, Jeonju offers three Asian auteurs, all quite accomplished but still in the early stages of their careers. Among them they have produced one medium-length surrealist dreamscape (Jayasundara’s Light in the Yellow Breathing Space); one experimental “hanging out” narrative framed by pure image and pure sound (Raya Martin’s The Great Cinema Party); and one comparatively straightforward, highly politicized Chinese docudrama (Ying Liang’s When Night Falls).
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While “art film” has become an ugly term in some circles, redolent of a set of self-conscious bourgeois strategies, Ying is a meticulous filmmaker whose deceptively simple manoeuvres serve to renew the very form. When Night Falls, much like Ying’s The Other Half (2006), exhibits a style that disrupts firm boundaries between fiction, essay, and documentary. For radical Chinese filmmakers today, these divisions represent impediments to accurate thinking, to attaining the means to represent unofficial, non-hegemonic truths. Ying, like such contemporaries as Jia Zhangke, Liu Jiayin, and Wang Bing, treats these classifications as more than historical conveniences that have worn out their welcome.
When Night Falls dramatizes a recent act of spontaneous political resistance that captured the nation’s attention in 2008 and turned a young murderer, Yang Jia, into a cause célèbre. Yang was caught in Shanghai riding an unlicensed bicycle, and could not prove it was his to the satisfaction of the bureau office, so he was arrested and beaten. He and his mother, Wang Jingmei, spent years going through the appropriate bureaucratic channels to have their grievances heard in an effort to bring the officers responsible for the beating to justice. (Anyone who knows the first thing about China’s legal system, or has seen Zhao Liang’s excellent 2009 film Petition, can guess the outcome.) In 2008, after being continually harassed, Yang killed six Shanghai police officers, was sentenced to death, and promptly executed.
Chinese authorities have already been on alert about Ying’s film since news of its production began circulating. Even four years after the fact, the case remains a highly sensitive matter. Ai Weiwei has already made a feature-length documentary about Yang, Yi ge Gupi de Ren, translated as One Recluse or A Lonely Man. Ai’s video examines the Yang case from many angles, particularly that of Chinese civil rights. While featuring commentary from various legal experts, A Lonely Man also shows Ai knocking on a lot of doors and being turned away, or Shanghai police shoving hands in his camera lens. While Mrs. Wang appears in the film, she was not its focus; she was interviewed at length in a separate epilogue video. (A Lonely Man is discussed in Ai’s interview with J. P. Sniadecki in Cinema Scope 49.)
The differences between Ai’s docu-tract and When Night Falls are highly instructive, and speak to the strategic deployment of ethos versus pathos in rhetorically oriented works of art. Whereas A Lonely Man, by necessity, engages broad questions of justice, with Yang and Wang as the central nodes around whom an entire citizenry swirls, When Night Falls, while hardly a conventional melodrama and certainly not without formal innovation, calls upon emotional identification with Mrs. Wang, her struggle and her loss, to make its broader political points resonate all that much stronger. In particular, watching this bereaved, browbeaten woman fight on behalf of her son represents a situational reversal of traditional filial piety, the parent “revering” her child before a stacked-deck legal structure and an uncertain court of public opinion.
Ying’s film begins with a languorous voiceover by Wang Jingmei (Nai An), who is shown fighting for her son’s survival. We hear her voice at the beginning and end, as Ying shows us actual photos and facts from the internet and Wang’s blog, documentary material that eases us into and out of a thinly fictionalized but emotionally heightened space; at one point Ying includes an image of Ai shooting, with a note about his involvement. In these opening and closing slide-show montages, When Night Falls marks its difference from most conventional docudramas, many of which break frame at the end with information about the real-life subject of the preceding film. Instead, Ying’s extended intro/outro approach implicitly incorporates Ai’s earlier effort, as well as bringing his own broader method into focus, zeroing the spectator in on the single subject, Wang Jingmei. When Night Falls could be said to iris in and out of the larger social realm, with the individual and her plight as the “vanishing point” throughout.
When Night Falls remains with Wang’s morose, determined but utterly exhausted point of view, as she reviews files with her sister and brother-in-law, accepts unsolicited help from volunteer “netizens,” and eventually faces off against representatives of the Chinese High Court. Ying’s visual approach is low-grade and washed out, indicating that he wisely chose to apply the Jeonju budget towards a wider overall scope rather than an equipment upgrade. Unlike most any other JDP effort (including The Great Cinema Party), When Night Falls is a film that bears no obvious traces of its origins in a specialized series. Its means and methods speak much more directly to the broader narrative syntax and formal shibboleths of Asian festival cinema. Nevertheless, his combination of still, angular master-shot cinematography and dim, flat images provides an analogue to the combination of heroism and futility than underlines Wang’s every effort. What restrictions exist, Ying enfolds into a saturating vision.
Part of what makes When Night Falls excel as a work of cinema, as well as a political intervention, comes from Ying’s harnessing of isolation and pathos for the express purpose of displaying, through spatial articulation and physical bombardment, what it feels like when the entire apparatus of the Chinese government bears down on a lone individual. A great deal of this results from Nai’s performance as Wang, whose slow, hunched movements through Ying’s deep, recessed compositions return a specific social valence to Antonioni/Tsai architectural imprisonment. One particularly fine shot finds Wang walking alone through a street towards the camera as an unseen loudspeaker trumpets the “splendid” Olympic Games. A woman bikes past her quizzically. The scene would be Kafkaesque except there is no paranoia, only bone-aching sorrow. In several other scenes, Ying places Wang at centre frame in the midst of a collection of angry young activists, all questioning her or completing her arguments, all the better to help fight “her” cause. (There’s also a young man videotaping everything, naturally.) After they thoughtlessly follow her home after the verdict, she expels them from her walk-up them as if they were moneychangers. “Who allowed you to film? Why are you following me? I know none of you!” (“Jingmei is in a bad mood and I hope you understand,” her sister apologizes.)
Ying includes moments that are both amusing and pathetic, providing unique angles on this hopelessness. The mother’s attempts to get a senile tailor to replace Yang’s pants zippers with buttons, so he can wear them before he dies, are tender and tragicomic; a late-night call to a near-stranger, whose lost wallet Yang once returned when he found it in a cab, is an agonizing plea for decency from any corner. The overall trajectory of When Night Falls, in terms of its focus on the collateral human damage surrounding a violent event rather than the event itself, recalls Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine (2007) and Poetry (2010). (Wang herself was detained in a mental hospital for 143 days, by order of the Shanghai police, following Yang’s arrest. However, Ying’s film strategically avoids the sensationalism of depicting that stay, and picks up well afterward.)
Ying and various members of his family were subjected to harassment and threatened with arrest, both before and after When Night Falls premiered in Jeonju. (Government officials allegedly even offered to purchase the film rights from the festival for an exorbitant sum, so as to effectively bury it.) There is much more to say about this unsavoury incident, but it has been well documented elsewhere, not least by Ying himself. His letter, “Nothing About Cinema, Everything About Freedom,” (dgeneratefilms.com/china-today/nothing-about-cinema-everything-about-freedom-by-ying-liang) provides both a timeline of the events as he experienced them, and his own lucid and invaluable perspective on the matter. It’s also important that Ying’s film has a life—a critical life, a film life—apart from the acts of attempted censorship that were and may still be perpetrated against it. As Ying writes, “the fact that the film has become a topic as such can’t be more embarrassing and unfortunate.” Of course, he goes on to fight for his film, as we all should. But part of fighting for When Night Falls is to refuse to reduce it to a political football. It’s clearly one of the year’s key films. And it would have been regardless.
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Mostly a success but of a very different order, Vimukthi Jayasundara’s 40-minute Light in the Yellow Breathing Space is in many respects the finest work the Sri Lankan auteur has yet produced. Unmoored from the strictures of both linear storytelling and the need to stretch his primarily imagist vision out to feature-length, Jayasundara has achieved an unexpected freedom. The fact that Jayasundara plans to expand the piece is both promising and regrettable; it’s fine as it is, but one hopes that his newfound freedom and tactility will survive the transition. Above all, his contribution to the series finds him no longer wrestling with the question of whether or not his cinematic pictures have a right to be beautiful, whether his camera is permanently in danger of becoming a participant in auto-colonialism or an inadvertent exoticism of poverty. Yellow Breathing Space is a succulent play of light and texture, its close attention to skin, surface, the movement of water or wind in the trees coalescing to provoke unapologetic awe.
At the same time, much like certain aspects of Jayasundara’s last feature Mushrooms (2011), this filmmaker often expresses his artistic personality in a manner that’s unnervingly similar to Apichatpong. Here we find Jayasundara employing surrealism and loosely knotted, image-driven story movement to weave a tribute to his father Reginold, a doctor and mystic who attempted to develop a theory that reconciled Darwinian evolution and Buddhism’s doctrine of reincarnation through a concept of karma as aspirational energy. Jayasundara articulates this through a (deliberately fake) hooded dinosaur dancing in the jungle, a near-silent nighttime family table scene, a sudden break for a non-diegetic, semi-documentary interlude, and a spiritual wander/crawl through a thicket-enclosed waterfall area bathed in a preternatural sunlight.
If we consider Breathing Space as a potentially compressed feature, which admittedly is a bit unfair, we can certainly see that many of these jarring images and motifs could undergo expansion or repetition, while retaining a dreamlike mien rather than becoming overly explicated. Nevertheless, there is a worry that the direct-address documentary insert (spoken, pointedly, with an aristocratic British voiceover) could reflect a tone that might well “colonize” the imagination of the entire enterprise, in tone if not in specific aspect. The dinosaur chase is a literal-minded image undercut by its artifice. Jayasundara must take care not to lapse into a symbolic logic that permits him to hold onto ideas with which he is overly enamoured, always a danger in autobiographical art.
Not that this is as clear and present a danger for this filmmaker as the anxiety of influence. (Granted, the human-shaped hole in the ground is more of an Ana Mendieta touch than anything remotely Joei-ish.) However, despite the general sense of déjà vu, Jayasundara possesses his own unique sense of rhythm, to say nothing of his impressive flair for articulating sounds and images with reasonably disparate characteristics and textures into a satisfying whole. And despite its moment-to-moment echoes of other works, Yellow Breathing Space still represents a significant turn within the JDP. Let’s face it—a majority of JDP entries have been over-reliant on point-and-shoot “Bazinianism.” (For lowlights of this tendency, see Bahman Ghobadi, Eric Khoo, and Wang Xiaoshuai.) By contrast, Jayasundara’s dense, crystalline images and spacious sound design are indicative of an artist pushing his tools to the limits.
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The third and by far hardest-to-classify Jeonju entry, The Great Cinema Party, does not push “the medium” to its limits so much as it generates new and unexpected ways of conjuring syntagmatic sense out of the old stuff—sound, image, people, land, and sky. It’s a feature that challenges “feature-ness,” the possibility of words and things hanging together into a unified whole. Granted, by this point nothing Raya Martin does should surprise us. Not yet 30, Martin has not only established himself as a major new voice in contemporary cinema, but at the same time has done virtually everything possible to disrupt, subvert, or otherwise disarticulate any beachhead that his successes might establish for himself.
Where works such as A Short Film About the Indio Nacional (2005) and Independencia (2009) explored and recreated the troubled history of the Philippines within frameworks still fundamentally comprehensible to the film festival power-base (performance reenactment, false artifact), Martin has spent even more time pressing against the limits of legibility. Autohystoria (2007) begins with such a long, seemingly blank take (35+ minutes) that Martin isn’t just challenging his audience to “stick it out;” he is instilling doubt as to what kind of film they are even about to see. Narrative? Documentary? Avant-garde? Cognition is effectively short-circuited, to the point where many will give up, fairly certain they aren’t seeing a “film” at all. Likewise, the four-hour-plus Now Showing (2008) is without a doubt “a film,” but arguably too much film to be a film, giving us the equivalent of two features depicting the past and the present of its video-kiosk-bound heroine.
Martin’s most recent work, such as the one-minute, Brakhagesque Ars colonia (2011) and the experimental collage feature Buenos Noches, España (2011), indicate that Martin has fully embraced avant-garde filmmaking. Both films involve as much paint, scratched leader, and manipulation of pure shape as they do human movement and historical content. If he ever really knew how to make a “festival film,” he’s forgotten. But in truth, it’s evident that although his practice is protean, his bailiwick has always been the same. It’s necessary to generate forms suffused with negativity, a refusal to cohere into Representations of Filipino Culture. The films stake out (passive-) aggressive stances of self-unravelling.
Martin’s latest is no exception, and it may be his most radical gesture yet. More than anything else Martin has done so far, The Great Cinema Party risks appearing to the casual observer as nothing. It could easily be mistaken for some gussied-up home video, a way for Martin to use the Jeonju cash to take his friends on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Philippines for a genial walkout, picnic, and eventual party. Part of the challenge posed by Martin’s highly experimental film comes from the fact that this diagnosis is not entirely incorrect. I don’t know how Martin spent the money, nor do I particularly care. But if part of the budget went to travel expenses or cases of San Miguel, this would only deepen my appreciation for The Great Cinema Party, which owes something in spirit at least to San Diego artists Elizabeth Sisco, Louis Hock, and David Avalos’s 1993 project Arte Reembolso/Art Rebate (1993), in which the performers distributed their NEA grant to 450 undocumented workers along the Mexican border. But The Great Cinema Party has much more “there” there. The trouble for many viewers may be that the film’s substantial midsection entails a group of good friends of Martin’s (including Cinema Scope editor Mark Peranson) experiencing pleasure. This is something that cinema has tended to have some difficulty with.
The opening seven minutes of GCP are more “customary,” in some senses—a silent montage of black-and-white stock footage from the War in the Pacific, images of armadas and jet formations alternating with Japanese and Allied troops marching through the streets of Manila like they own the place. Granted, Martin’s assembly of these archival clips forms its own experimental sequence, a study of wartime massification. Teeming throngs of helmeted heads moving this way and that, intercut with planes, ships, and jeeps moving in formation, Martin’s prologue silently displays an internal logic of invasion “at war” with its own representation. By organizing it rhythmically, taxonomically, or sometimes speeding the footage or running it in reverse, Martin subtly undermines its authority. When we see American soldiers are surveying the bombed-out husk of Manila in black-and-white reversal stock, the victors seem more like lost souls wandering through a land they’re not sure what to do with.
Still, images of war exert a kind of comfort. It’s as though the apparatus was built for them, the camera optics in loving harmony with those of the rifle scope. It comes as no surprise that this prologue, even in its silence, scans for a viewer as more comfortably “cinematic” than what follows. In the final moments of the montage, after a close-up of a US flag and a newspaper headline (“WAR IS OVER”), we see a panoramic view of a city in ruins. The silence is cut by an air-raid siren, and the gray filmic sky is broken open by a close-up of Lav Diaz welcoming us to the Party. Next, we see Martin’s guests disembark, examine the bombed-out artifacts along the war-torn island of Corregidor in Manila Bay, look around, engage quite jovially with one another, discuss the historical significance of the places they’re exploring (including a rustic mansion that was the location for some of the earliest Filipino films), eat, learn, meet people, hang out, spend time.
As I became an implicit guest to Martin’s party, I found it hard not to think about Raul Ruíz and his great essay, “ Central Conflict Theory.” Ruíz explains how a dominant ideology assumes that the beating heart of cinematic meaning is contestation, A fighting B in an “athletic fiction.” Wars, then, are the perfect cinematic subject for this regnant artistic hegemony. And if I may be heretical here, we could think in terms of Freud’s “deferred action” (Nachträglichkeit) or the anti-linear time of the Unconscious, and we might wonder whether armed struggle’s total appositeness for art in the dominant mould helps to explain why we never stop waging wars, why on some level we seem to need them. It is often bandied about that once a nation builds a weapon, it will eventually be deployed. However, the connection between cinema and weaponry, which has been philosophically traced by Paul Virilio and has been the subject of film work by Harun Farocki, Péter Forgács, Yervant Gianikian/Angela Ricci Lucchi, and Peter Kubelka, is usually left out of this equation. Since we have cinema, we will insist on generating conflict, in order to perpetuate the flow of worthy profilmic events.
Within this economy, boredom is the most egregious offense, since it allows space for potential self-awareness. But a probable equal would have to be the depiction of pleasure, the instigation of utopian longing or at the very least the inkling that other forms of life-expenditure are possible, to say nothing of desirable. In any case, Martin shows us a drifting, open space, one held open not only for pleasure but for friendship, camaraderie, cooperation. (“Party” is both a celebration and a prospective political league.) The final get-together is characterized by random, pleasant chitchat, good food and drink, and a complete sense of conviviality. (Martin’s guests include several key figures of the Filipino film scene, including Adolfo Alix, Brillante Mendoza, and John Torres—people who, to a different kind of thinking, would be Martin’s competitors.) To a certain eye, the sight of happy people onscreen risks being nothing, not being a “film” at all. The fact that Martin concludes (almost…) The Great Cinema Party with nearly seven minutes of “non-exit music”—shimmering sheets of guitar and percussion, an expansive glacier of sound—delivered in complete darkness, a rhyming separation-of-elements to the silent battles with which he began, only solidifies this point. For an aesthetic regime built to mirror our geopolitical one—adversarial, paranoid—the black of an unlit screen reflects a Zen freedom that is louder than a bomb.