VIFF 2010 Mini Reviews: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, but Don't be afraid, Bi! (Day 6 & 7)

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Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, 2010). Thailand. Winner: Palme d'or, Cannes 2010.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul - Boonmee's world renown director - is a Buddhist (and gay, but that may not bear as much relevance for Boonmee as it did for Tropical Malady). I don't advocate having foreknowledge of an artist's life before attempting to analyze his/her work, but in this case, it might just be what may help us put the pieces of this challenging work together. The story - adapted from a Thai book called A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives (1983) - revolved around Uncle Boonmee, whose dead relatives appeared to him (and his remaining family) in the night and helped him experience visions of his past lives. Thematically, the film could be explained with a little understanding of a Buddhist-related concept of transience called "wabi-sabi" (so named by the Japanese based on Buddhism's Three Marks of Existence). The idea is to accept that nothing lasts, nothing is complete, and nothing is perfect. In essence, the film was about imperfect beings living a rather surreal, transient life until death transformed them into other imperfect beings. In one of the most eerie sequences in the film, Boonmee was visited by his presumably dead son, who transformed into a gorilla-like beast with glowing red eyes. It may have been a nod to old Thai cinema, but it could also be interpreted as a nod to the tranformative link between us and our closest relatives and/or evolutionary ancestors. Elsewhere, marks of imperfection were physically embodied by the film's characters: Boonmee's liver was failing, his sister's legs were asymmetrical, the princess in one of his visions was facially deformed, and so on. Boonmee's past lives may have been shown as a way to prepare him for death, which was depicted as merely a transformative process in which one living form (human or other animals) is exchanged for another. Even violence and oppression - captured in a rather disturbing and comical sequence involving soldiers and the aforementioned beasts - were transient, it seemed. Various cinematic tools and techniques found in older Thai film tradition were in a way relived by the film, suggesting perhaps a continuation and transformation of older cinematic forms. Death was everywhere, but nothing was as final as one may believe.

Winning Cannes' Palme D'or this year may help Boonmee pique the interest of a certain kind of audience - perhaps enough to fill several screenings, especially if it was to be selected by the Oscars in the foreign film category (Boonmee was chosen as Thai's official submission). Sustaining this interest, however, may prove a bit more challenging. Even at Cannes, it was rumoured to have played to a divided audience, judging by the number of walk-outs. Attrition rate was not noticeable at my VIFF screening, but it would not have surprised me had the audience here followed suit. Far from being an offensive film that could have precipitated this kind of reaction, Boonmee was a grand, meta, mythical journey occupying its own stratosphere. It was a thoroughly Eastern/Buddhist film, if a film could be defined as such. There were lots required of its audience, in both patience and willingness to explore a highly unusual, highly fragmented, densely packed mystical quest. However, given that it also embodied the spiritual journey it explored, granting its audience the kind of experience possibly similar to something achieved via meditation, it may just worth skipping yoga classes for.

Don't be afraid, Bi! (Phan, 2010). Vietnam. Special mention, VIFF's Dragon & Tiger Awards.

To Sigmund Freud, life is a struggle between two opposing forces: eros (love instinct) and thanatos (death instinct). First time director Dang Di Phan created a deceptively serene picture within which these two drives came to a head on an ordinary Vietnamese family looking to reconcile its fragmented parts. Bi was a little boy who chanced upon these forces with more wonder than fear, a disposition that the film seemed to implore the audience to adopt, or return to. His grandfather came back to live with the family after having fallen seriously ill abroad. Bi's father, unable to face his own presumed issue of childhood abandonment brought about by the reunion, sought the buzz of alcohol and youthful lust. As a result, the care of the grandfather was transferred solely to the women of the house: Bi's mother, aunt, and housekeeper. Given the subjects at hand, the film could've been a heavy-handed art-house fare. For certain, there were moments in which a checklist of what tended to show up in art house films could be drawn up for the film. However, there were plenty of pleasant surprises in Phan's direction, the most remarkable of which was how the film skipped along lightly, like the wind brushing on his green-field canvas. Eros and thanatos would at times seem to abruptly and forcefully burst on to the screen, but their shadow never completely overpowered the film's blithe spirit.

In the context of the Vietnam war and the profound effect it has had on the country's collective psyche as well as its people's personal history, it was noteworthy how the young director imbued his first work with so much optimism about the healing process. The staging of the film itself was a mix of old and new, with colonial arrangement contrasting modern details. The land and its people seemed to have changed rather quietly and shockingly so from the usual image of a war torn Vietnam burnt in the world's memory. The poetically composed final shot of the plane landing over a cemetery plot, where Bi explored his province and nature at the beckoning of his mother, suggested a cyclical nature of these departures and arrivals. At its heart, the film adopted a zen attitude towards life's deeper forces: things happened, are happening, and will happen. You'd either hop on the train or be left behind, toiling in the misery of your own nonacceptance (like Bi's father). Interestingly, the women in the film seemed to wisely embrace both eros and thanatos with little resistance or struggle, perhaps presenting a commentary on possible gender differences in this arena. The film encouraged the audience to walk unafraid along Freud's ghosts, by showing how they were just a part of our natural being. Once embraced, there was nothing left to fear. We could all be Bi, for the rest of our natural life, if we'd just let our self be.

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The Social Network, reimagined by other directors, as imagined by some other other people

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Why does it seem so easy to imitate these directors? I wish my parents got me a camera when I was three instead of ... no I can't think of anything. I could have been a contender.

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Operant conditioning at work: and you don't even have to sing!

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Jack Russell in an invisible Skinner Box!

Operant conditioning is a type of learning that occurs when a behaviour's likelihood of being repeated is affected by its consequences. In this case, a treat is presented upon the closing of a drawer or the pulling of a shoe string, positively reinforcing its behaviour and motivating the dog to repeat it. Some shaping might have occurred before the dog could learn to do so in the first place. Shaping may involve a giving-withholding-giving treat pattern as the dog gets closer and closer to the desired behaviour. You can see evidence of shaping in the video, when the dog waited for a treat after taking her shoes off (the point at which during training/shaping, it would've gotten a treat in the beginning), and could only get actual treats after both shoes were taken off AND slippers were fetched! It's not animal slavery if they're happy doing it!

Just think though, all this work could easily be avoided if you'd just sing a song. Witness:


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Cottrell & Hand, 1937)


Enchanted (Lima, 2007)

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Hermione + Ron Weasley + Dobby = Autistic child = Neanderthal?

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I don't know how much credence I'd give to the speculative suggestion of the link between Neanderthal lineage and autism*. I'm only posting this because of the picture. Just in time for the new Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 release, of course.



Am I right, or am I right?

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Footnote:

*Newly proposed diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder, to be considered for DSM V (to be published May 2013):

Must meet criteria 1, 2, and 3:

1. Clinically significant, persistent deficits in social communication and interactions, as manifest by all of the following:
a. Marked deficits in nonverbal and verbal communication used for social interaction:
b. Lack of social reciprocity;
c. Failure to develop and maintain peer relationships appropriate to developmental level

2. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities, as manifested by at least TWO of the following:
a. Stereotyped motor or verbal behaviors, or unusual sensory behaviors
b. Excessive adherence to routines and ritualized patterns of behavior
c. Restricted, fixated interests

3. Symptoms must be present in early childhood (but may not become fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities)

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Kill Bill Cake: Love, Mommy

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Cake Rhapsody on flickr baked a cake for her 9 year old daughter and threw her a Kill Bill themed birthday party. Consider me triply jealous. All I ever want for Christmas is a Kill Bill themed birthday party. Please, Santa, make it true?

On the cake (edited for spelling):

the bottom represents "the bride".. the scene in which Beatrice is gunned down in the opening scene.. there is white bridal lace with blood and realistic chocolate bullets...the next tier is a Japanese pagoda.. this represents the scene toward the end in which Beatrice fights the "crazy 88s" and O-Ren Ishii..it has the traditional roof tiles and curves and bamboo of a pagoda.. all edible .... the top is yellow with a black stripe to represent the suit Beatrice wears when she is fighting O-Ren Ishii contains an edible piece of notebook paper made of fondant with Beatrice's "death List five" , and katana..(which was not edible.. i thought it would make a nice keepsake) and a mask that represents the "crazy 88 ".. with a whole lotta royal icing blood splat

On throwing a Kill Bill themed party for her children (edited for spelling):
My my oldest 2 kids love Quentin Tarantino movies.. "MY" kids are NOT too young but maturity level and mental readiness and mental ability to process and understand the content varies so much from child to child. MY children do not carry with them a violent attitude and can grasp the emotional moods and motives behind each scene... they really are quite worldly , and well rounded..and emotionally mature for their age- they enjoy MANY kinds of movies , not just bloody ones, many of which their peers don't "get" or "grasp".. whether it be documentary, drama , sci-fi.. etc. They have an appreciation for vintage kung-fu cinema and cult films as well, which this movie seems to barrow heavily from. My kids do not curse, they do not act violently, they are mentally healthy, and they have perfect grades in school.. So i think that they are doing just fine

Don't you worry, Cake. Correlational studies concerning the link between violent media consumed and aggression are at best inconclusive, and at worst terribly misleading. Yes, it's possible to raise children on awesome (not to mention artful, female-empowered) Kung-fu flicks and not turn them into serial killers (see: Asian countries on Hong Kong cinema diet). It's not so much what your kids watch; it's what kind of home environment they're watching it in, and what they are getting out of it. Cake does it right: watch with your children, teach them how to grasp a piece of work, and help them develop a full life. If you're so inclined, show them how to channel the more destructive side (we all have that darkness) into something manageable. Then you can have your bloody chocolate cake and eat it too.

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VIFF 2010 mini reviews: My joy, Tamara Drewe, I wish I knew (Day 4 & 5)

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My Joy (Loznitsa, 2010). Ukraine.

A truck driver (Viktor Nemets), taking the advice of a teenage girl looking to make a living as a sex worker, got off road while attempting to cut through a traffic jam in a small Ukrainian town. Unbeknownst to him, that was the last time he knew of his decency and self-identity, as his nightmare (and ours) began with the meeting of three strange men in the night coming to rob him of his load. He was carried and transacted, for the most part, by various figures in the film, like the last shred of humanity nobody wanted, dredged through the unforgiven desert of a senseless existence. Rarely had a film made me feel so helpless, angry, and oppressed (while admiring its execution at the same time). The lawlessness of the land turned people into grubby animals, and they in turn beat the crap out of any reminder of anything that was ever good left in the world. My joy was brutally bleak in its observations and uncompromisingly oblique in its presentation. It occupied the same sadistic world as that of Haneke's Funny Games, but without a readily available plot for the audience to follow (or a fourth wall to break, for that matter). The hand held, guerrilla, realistic style of film making meant there was no detachment possible - we were in it with him, suffering the psychological horror that he transferred to us by virtue of us being the only entity with self awareness and empathy in this communal experience. His unresponsiveness - possibly from the head injury's trauma - meant we were left on our own to respond for him, as helpless witnesses to the worse of human unkindness. The film went far beyond the implication that corruption of the laws incurred the most selfish and base of human behaviour; this was a world of traumas and abusers inflicting their pain upon others. It was a film to be endured - and you may want to for such a daring, unconventional film, but perhaps only once.

Tamara Drewe (Frears, 2010). England.

Plastic-modified beauty may not buy happiness, but it got Tamara Drewe the kind of attention she craved as a young girl growing up on the ugly duckling side of the fence. She understood the power of beauty - aided by sheer, unadulterated guts - and used it to thump her nose, so to speak, at the people who used to reject her. She soon found out, as these inner beauty fables tended to unfold, modern pretty girls have (surprise!) problems too, ones that her overeager ambition wouldn't know what to do with. Based on a comic strip that was itself a modern retelling of Thomas Hardy's Far from the madding crowd, Tamara Drewe exercised its comedy of errors duty diligently, leaving the audience with easy laughs and the pleasant feeling of a tea room escape. There's a certain comfort in familiarity, and the film was a comfortable experience. The small town life depicted seemed to exist from an unchanging time of yesteryear's romance novels with a slight feminist ambition, complete with its host of small-minded, nosy, but charming characters. Our heroine was still pining for love and deliberating marriage choices as her primary concerns. Plain-jane wives were still being taken for granted and growing green with a mix of contempt and envy for the pretty young things who would soon steal her undeserved husband away. We have seen it before, and we'll see it again. In the mean time, have a cookie and call it a show.

Hai shang chuan qi (I wish I knew; Zhangke, 2010). China.

Briefly, this gorgeously filmed documentary / fictional hybrid meta feature examined the history of Shanghai as told by eighteen people affected by the Cultural Revolution on both sides of the communist equation. Small in stature and modest in manner, Jia Zhangke, a seminal (and beloved, judging from the appreciative audience) living Chinese filmmaker with an appetite for knowledge and art, appeared at the VIFF screening I attended and spoke enthusiastically at length about the film during his Q&A. Apparently, he had wanted to make a film about an earlier war. However, in the process of gathering materials for the film, he found more compelling, moving individual stories that would have been difficult for him to justifiably crystallize in a feature film. Instead, he let a fraction of the people he interviewed - the survivors of an important moment in modern Chinese history - drafted their own film memoirs. The title of the film was inspired by a song recalled - and sung - by an old aristocrat:

I wish I knew how
It would feel to be free
I wish I could break
All the chains holding me
I wish I could say
All the things that I should say
Say 'em loud say 'em clear
For the whole round world to hear
I wish I could share
All the love that's in my heart
Remove all the bars
That keep us apart
I wish you could know
What it means to be me
Then you'd see and agree
That every man should be free

I wish I could give
All I'm longin' to give
I wish I could live
Like I'm longin' to live
I wish I could do
All the things that I can do
And though I'm way over due
I'd be starting a new

Well I wish I could be
Like a bird in the sky
How sweet it would be
If I found I could fly
Oh I'd soar to the sun
And look down at the sea
Than I'd sing cos I know - yea
Then I'd sing cos I know - yea
Then I'd sing cos I know
I'd know how it feels
Oh I know how it feels to be free
Yea Yea! Oh, I know how it feels
Yes I know
Oh, I know
How it feels
How it feels
To be free

One got the feeling that "I wish I knew" was also Zhangke's dream of the past, as his curiosity about Chinese history grew with the films he made about contemporary China. Like the recurring bridge motif and Zhao Tao's ghostly presence, the film served as an attempt to connect Shanghai's present occupants to their history, as a way of explaining the city's current importance in the modernizing China. It was - and is - a port of dreams of freedom, a witness to these dreams' realization (or lack thereof). As their audience, we, too, became witnesses to their personal evolution. As a film enthusiast, I found it particularly interesting to see other filmmakers and their respective films being used as parts of Shanghai's constructed history. The film ended with a controversial modern day chaser of dreams - the car racer cum novelist Han Han, who uses his power as a celebrity to blog rather fearlessly about China’s corrupted state officials (a fact that was not disclosed in the film). The message was clear: people's dreams of freedom were stronger than any party affiliation. Is the Chinese government watching?

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