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.
Our Sunhi (2012)
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.
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.
The Fall (2006)
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.
The Red House (2012)
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.