Little Film Review: Last Harvest (2012)

Last Harvest (2014)
Jane Hui Wang

The “South-to-North Water Diversion Project” is perhaps the world’s largest geoengineering project. Its aim is to to divert water from southern China to northern China. It is much larger in scale and cost than the Three Gorges Dam, 800,000 people are being relocated, and their homes and farmlands are submerged behind dams.

Jane Hui Wang’s quiet and intimate documentary observes this massive event from the perspective of one elderly farming couple. Wang accompanies the Xu family in their day-to-day lives as they pack up their farmhouse and prepare to move to the resettlement village.

The film feels deceptively uneventful at first. There is no shocking scandal revealed in Last Harvest. The Xus thrash their last rice. They pack their furniture. They wait. But the massive events unfolding offscreen loom in the periphery. As the inevitability of their relocation sets in, you are reminded of the magnitude of the project. The Xu’s experience is being replicated by hundreds of thousands of others across China.

With her engaging subjects and patient camera, Wang has successfully demonstrated how to make a personal and uncontrived film with global relevance.

Model Airplane Childhood

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Like a stereotypical nerdy kid, I liked to build model airplanes when I was young. They were the plastic kind that you glue together. My dad has always loved airplanes and flight, but I don’t think it took very much persuasion for me to become drawn to them as well.

The attraction is many layered. Flight itself has a magical quality. Then you have the attraction of machines and technology. The functionality of planes is attractive. But planes can also have a beautiful gracefulness.

Finally, there is something about the act model building that goes beyond simply picking up a readymade model or toy with the exact same shape. The process of gradually putting it together allows your imagination to really inhabit the plane (or boat, or car, or spaceship, or whatever you like to build). You get to know all of its ins and outs as you see its shape come together.

A related father-son practice from my childhood was going to air shows of remote controlled planes out by the local community college. There was a big field there were hobbyists would gather to fly their planes around. Sometimes they would also have gatherings of “free flight” models. These just cruise along with no remote control. They’re often powered by a rubber band and made out of very light materials – just tissue paper and thin sticks of balsa wood.

My dad built one of these rubber band powered stick and tissue planes when I was little. I don’t recall if it was a scale model of a historical plane, but it resembled something like a Piper Cub. Around this time, while we were attending one of those miniature air shows, a kind old man gave me a stick and tissue kit. It was a scale model of a Bf 109 – a fighter plane from WWII.

However, I was still focused on the plastic models at the time. I wasn’t sure I had the skills, dexterity, and patience required for stick and tissue models. And so the kit sat on the shelf. Several years went by. I gradually got out of the habit of building models altogether. Eventually I was finished with high school and off to Canada for university. By that time, both my dad and I had assumed that the kit had been parted out for use on other projects.

Then one December, while I was visiting home for the season, I found the box and pulled it off the shelf. It was all still there! So, naturally, I decided to give it a shot and start building

And boy, am I glad that I did. I had just stumbled into what has became a delightful new/old hobby. It rekindled my childhood enjoyment of building model airplanes. But I also found the process of building from wood and paper quite rewarding.

With stick and tissue, you are starting from raw materials. Forming the pieces yourself extends the the period where your imagination explores the shape of the plane. As it all comes together, I get a real sense of ownership and accomplishment.

Beyond the immediate experience of building a stick and tissue model, there is something interesting about the technology itself, its relationship to history, and its reproducibility.

If there was an old plastic model that is no longer in production, you are pretty much out of luck. Unless you find someone selling an unbuilt specimen on ebay, you will not be able to build that model. Once there are no more unbuilt kits left, that is it.*

But stick and tissue is different. There are kits available of course, but you can also work from plans on paper. This means that you can find plans from the 1930s or earlier and still build the model. All you have to do is supply balsa. Sites like have collected thousands of scans of classic plans and made them available for free.

I’ve only made three stick and tissue planes so far. But this is definitely a hobby I will return to from time to time. I’ll post some photos of the models I’ve built so far, and the next time I start one, I will try to document the process from the beginning more thoroughly.
*Perhaps 3D printing will change this. But then again, you will still need a digital version of the original.

Little Film Review: Our Sunhi (2012)

Our Sunhi (2012)
Hong Sang-soo

This is Hong Sang-Soo in top form. Our Sunhi has all of Hong’s usual hallmarks – immature academic men, a somewhat exasperated woman, and lots of soju. With these simple building blocks, he’s created a simple film, setting aside his flashbacks and other plot complications. In fact, it is an uncomplicated film in almost every way. Most scenes are put together from just a couple of uninterrupted long takes, and the plot is fairly uneventful. The crux of the whole story is simple request for a reference letter.

But the film’s simplicity is not a fault in the least. Our Sunhi is well crafted light comedy and Hong’s restraint pays off. Simple repetition, paced sparingly throughout the film produces laughs from the least suspected places. Before seeing this film, who could  have guessed that the phrase “artistic sense” could be so funny?

In a sense, this film is an exercise in drawing the most value out of the least material. Restrained, but with good artistic sense, indeed.

Little Film Review: The Revenant (2015)

The Revenant (2015)
Alejandro González Iñárritu

With more than a few shots looking up through tree canopies, this film calls to mind Emmanuel Lubezki’s other work with Terrence Malick. While Lubezki has immense skill as a cinematographer, those signature skyward shots call so much attention to themselves that they pull the viewer out of the immersive experience of the film. Nevertheless, the cinematography does a remarkable job of transporting us to a wilderness of bleak beauty.

The other notable issue with this film is its cultural politics. While the Native American characters are certainly well researched, they are limited to background pieces that highlight the white protagonist’s struggle. As a result, the film fails to move beyond the same cultural stereotypes of countless previous westerns.

Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a fine enough performance. But it is not nearly as interesting as Tom Hardy’s captivatingly cruel villain. Where DiCaprio’s range is limited to expressing various degrees of pain and discomfort, Hardy’s performance contains a wealth of subtle humanizing mannerisms.

It’s hard to tell if the chronological filming schedule and natural lighting approach are gimmicks, or genius. Perhaps similar effects could have been achieved with the standard suite of techniques. It would certainly be cheaper. However, it is hard to deny how visceral this film feels. The actors’ growing exhaustion is palpable. The lighting and atmosphere are also spot on.

This is an engaging film, a powerful film, but also one that undermines its strengths with cultural cliché and risks distracting the viewer with artifice.

Little Film Review: The Fall (2006)

The Fall (2006)
Tarsem Singh

Tarsem Singh’s The Fall is a film’s film with a storyteller’s story.

A central question in this film is “who owns a story?” Or rather, who controls its meaning and interpretation? As a frame narrative, the plot calls attention to the act of storytelling. However, the story within the story is also being crafted and challenged in real time as the frame narrative unfolds.

If the film’s plot structure was its only self-referential aspect, that would be more than enough to qualify The Fall as an interesting study of storytelling. Yet the setting and cinematography each add their own multi-layered meanings. After all, this is a film’s film.

Despite the intricate plot, The Fall is primarily a visual film, not a literary one. The cinematography is decadently baroque. The film is set in silent film era Hollywood – an industry devoted to storytelling through pictures.

This exploration of self-referentiality and authorial control is increasingly relevant in today’s media environment. Such questions have implications for both copyright law and popular media criticism, as films are meme-ified and digested multiple times the moment trailers are released.

This self indulgent filmmaking can actually be worthwhile and rewarding here. In the same way that a science fiction viewer suspends disbelief in order to appreciate the film on its own terms, suspension of propriety aids appreciation of The Fall. Those indulgently sumptuous visuals are indeed a delight to behold. The many-layered story provides ample fodder for conversation.

Little Film Review: The Red House (2012)

The Red House (2012)
Alyx Duncan

An expression can never fully capture the entirety of what it is trying to express. No matter how precise, little gaps between a word and its referent persist. Memories are always a step away from the reality. An interpretation of an expression will differ slightly from the idea that sparked that expression.

Alyx Duncan’s beautiful and genre-bending first feature film is an elegant and loving exploration of these little gaps.

Lee is an environmentalist living in rural New Zealand with his wife, Jia. When they met, he only spoke English and she spoke only Mandarin. Twenty years later their language proficiency has changed very little, and yet they have forged a deep and intimate understanding.

They are preparing to pack up and move to China, to the home Jia left decades ago. This simultaneous homecoming and departure allows for varied and nuanced experiences of nostalgia – both on an intimate level, and within the context of globalization. Home is never exactly as you remember. It never was, but more importantly, it never stopped changing while you were away.

Fittingly, this film’s production started as a documentary about the filmmaker’s father, stepmother and their house. However, they were uneasy appearing as themselves on camera. So Duncan decided to give them fictional roles to play. This pretext was just the gap that they needed to let down their guard. As a result, the film is much more truthful than it might have been otherwise, if not as factual.

Writing on writing on film, and my own self-confidence.

Earlier this year I was applying for a job at a film festival as a programming associate. In addition to the usual cover letter and resume, they asked for three short film reviews.

I didn’t get the job (boo) but the process of writing was good. I actually wrote five, so that I could pick out the best three. Once it was clear that I wasn’t getting he job, I kept the reviews around. I’ve known for a long time that I want to keep a blog/website, but I’m still figuring out what to put here. These reviews are as good a place to start as any other.

I will share those reviews, but first I would like to talk about the writing itself. This blog/website is still quite new, and I am the only reader. So I suspect that a lot of the content, at least at first will be somewhat confessional (and self-indulgent). I need a place to write down my navel-gazing for a while. With luck and perseverance, I will hit onto something worthwhile.

Anyway. Back to writing on film.

The job posting didn’t specify the context for the reviews. So I wondered quite a bit about what voice I should use. A program book note? A report for a senior programmer? A traditional review for publication? What about an academic paper?

These are subtly different categories, but they are important distinctions. The intentions of the writer and assumptions about the reader are quite distinct. A program note is selling something, in a sense. You are aiming to frame the film in the best possible way. You want to set the expectations for the audience so that they have the best chance to be satisfied.

A report from one pre-screener or programmer to another is never meant for public view, and can be much more candid. It is not a simple assessment of quality, (although that is a component) but also an assessment of fit. How does his film fit with the festival’s mission, as well as with the rest of the program?

Of course a review from a critic is the most widely known format. But it’s also the one I have the least experience with. I’ve wondered why I was drawn towards festival programming rather than towards film reviewing. They are similar positions, in a way. Both the programmer and the critic tell their audiences which films are worth watching. But a critic also tells her audience which films are not worth their time.

I am reminded of one of my favourite moments in the film Ratatouille: Anton Ego’s review of the meal prepared by Remy the rat. You can watch it here. Around 36 seconds in, he talks about the role of the critic in “the discovery and defense of the new.” That line always stuck with me. It is something that I think programmers and critics share, in their own ways.

There is a part of me that feels that I do not know how to write seriously about film, especially as a critic or an academic. I know this sounds silly. I’ve written program notes for films at multiple film festivals, and received some positive feedback from colleagues and bosses. I have undergraduate and masters degrees in cinema studies. I even took a course on art criticism in high school. I have written many many papers on film. Some of them even received good grades!

But… I also feel like I lost a lot of those skills after I finished school. Not to mention the ever-present impostor syndrome I experienced while I was still there.

I never quite became fluent in film theory. And although I enjoy film history, I have only scratched the surface when it comes to watching the important films and directors of the world. Many of my friends who work in other fields always seem to have seen more movies that I have.

When I read a good review of a film, even a film I have seen and given much thought to, I stand in awe at all of the nuanced and well informed insights. It all seems so plainly obvious, and yet I missed it all.

I have acquaintances and classmates who have written on film or pop culture for different publications and websites. How did they start? Where does the authority and confidence come from? Where do the clever insights about films come from?

Well, I warned you about the confessional tone and the navel gazing. It is not my intention to make this blog a personal diary. But some individual posts, like this one, might take that tone.

Just as different forms of writing on film adjust their voice according to their assumed audience, I will adjust my tone as I start to have readers besides myself.

What is my taste in cinema?

When you study film, people like to ask you what your favourite film(s) are. Or your favourite genre. And like many film students before me, I have a hard time narrowing it down. So I say something along the lines of, “Oh I like lots of genres, it’s impossible to choose.” Or “it depends on my mood.”

While true… those answers also kinda feel like cop-outs. But I’ve actually given a decent amount of thought to this subject… but the more I think about it, but broader my answer gets, rather than narrower. I find that I often like movies that are radically different from each other.

On the one hand, I really like stories of life that don’t feel the need to include some big dramatic arc or conflict. Think Old Joy, Museum Hours or a documentary like The Sower. Peaceful films.

On the other hand, I also like films that are super violent and completely about conflict. Think Dredd, The Raid or John Wick.

So then I thought, maybe I like films that are clear and simple in their aims? Well, not really. I also love films with fussy intricacies, or sprawling ambitions like Terry Gilliam films.

I do tend to like films that look nice… I am a sucker for some Wes Anderson. I don’t care if the films are all just very expensive dollhouse play sessions and daddy issues. I love them anyway. Oh, and The Fall. Can’t talk about good looking films and leave out that one.

… But I don’t exclusively like nice-looking films. Gritty, cheesy B movies are great. Heck, I even like a lot of grainy, portrait-oriented cell-phone videos. (Yes, I’ve mostly been talking about feature-length films… but the borders between Cinema with a capital C and other types of moving pictures are pretty porous these days. It’s all grist for the mill)

But this isn’t to say that I like all films… Just that it is very hard to come up with a list of characteristics that all the films I like or don’t like share.

I’m nowhere near an answer. But there we go.

What is this website for?

Well. I’ve had this domain and website for a few years now… but I’ve never quite figured out what I want to do with it. Am I a writer? A film critic? I don’t really feel like a scholar or academic anymore.

Anyway, for now, I’m going to try use this as a place to put down my thoughts on things I think are neat. A personal boing boing? Maybe. And then maybe, in the course of doing this, I’ll find a purpose for the website that I like. Or not.

For a couple of years, I have been attempting to keep a list of (mostly) every film that I see. And maybe a few thoughts about the film. But the list was messy, and hard to do anything with. Even counting the items was a pain, since it was an unnumbered word doc.

So I made a little project for myself to put it all into an excel sheet instead. And I’ll add some more columns like “director” and such. By copying it all over one by one by hand, it is forcing/allowing me to revisit the list one item at a time (as opposed to a big copy and paste dump). This has been actually very fun and rewarding! I’ve been reminded of films that I actually really liked, but for whatever reason, have not thought about much.

In a very nice way, this is already creating fodder for this blog. So stay tuned for some blurbs about lovely films.

In the meantime, I am going to continue to fill out my list of recently viewed films. I’m also going to try to create a list for television shows, books, and video games. I’m calling them my cultural texts tally.

Second first post

This blog sat untouched for a long time because I didn’t know how to write a first post. I always imagined it from the perspective of the somewhat more distant future. How would it look, looking back? It was a paralyzing thought.

Then there was a bit of a false start. I had a first post, and it was about a homebrew project. It was fine, but I still didn’t really know what I was doing with the blog. After the site was stagnant for a long time again, I decided to delete the post, at least for now. Maybe I’ll bring it back later.

Anyway the only reason for this post is to get the “first post” out of the way. Hopefully, this time, I will get more into the swing of things and post more interesting things more regularly.