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

November 22, 2010 at 5:16 PM

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November 23, 2010 at 4:53 AM

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