Money worries: Sundance 2013, part one

31 January 2013

In different ways and with varying reward, three documentaries and two features respond to our far-reaching global crisis.

Reviewed: Fallen City (Zhao Qi); A River Changes Course (Kalyanee Mam); The Moo Man (Andy Heathcote); Houston (Bastian Günther); Soldier Jane (Daniel Hoesl).

"Money means nothing to me now," says Li Guihua, one of three principals through whom the events depicted in Fallen City (2012) are viewed. It's a short but cutting statement that gets to the heart of Zhao Qi's documentary, which premiered at Amsterdam's International Documentary Film Festival late last year, and which focuses upon the May 2008 earthquake that destroyed Beichuan, a town in the Chinese province of Szechuan, and dislocated its entire population of 20,000 (the final death toll of the earthquake numbered over 69,000 with a further 20,000 unaccounted for). The film follows Li, who lost three sisters, one daughter and a granddaughter; it also traces the impact the earthquake had on Hong, fourteen at the time, who lost his father, and the Pengs, who lost their eleven-year-old daughter.

Swamped in melancholy, Fallen City illustrates a collective trauma that has outlived government initiatives to rebuild Beichuan and relocate its population elsewhere. Early on, Li gives us a tour of her collapsed house and describes it in the present tense - "this is our cupboard"; "this is our meeting room" - while the images themselves contradict any such notion of a living space. Denial and deferral are legitimate responses to trauma, but they're shown here alongside early breakdowns and heartbreakingly honest utterances, such as when Hong speaks frankly and simply of his estrangement from his mother in the aftermath of his father's death (though she seems unsympathetic to his failing education, Hong himself sympathises with what he presumes is a telling loneliness). Qi matches the multiple ways in which his subjects grieve by stressing their geographical dislocation: Li along with thousands of others is temporarily housed some 65 km away, while Hong attends boarding school away from his mother and step-father; Mr. Peng joins his father-in-law atop the mountain overlooking Beichuan, while his wife - for whom such proximity is too much to handle - travels to Shanghai.

Respectful of its subjects' emotional and even physical distresses (Li is left to nurse her paraplegic mother), Fallen City is a humbling and moving account that begins towards its end to reflect a wider, more menacing undercurrent. Primed early by an anchorwoman's over-keen news announcement that the construction of the new Beichuan city has begun on the first anniversary of the earthquake, latter passages hint at systemic corruption and self-congratulation on the part of the Chinese government. Hinted at, for example, is the absurdity of having the new Beichuan's residencies allocated through a lottery ballot, while following initial optimism, some basic arithmetic finds the Pengs well shy of the 200,000 yuan required for relocation. The erection of an Earthquake Museum on the former site of the city feels merely exploitative.

But these disasters are only ever partly "natural" in the first place. To be sure, substandard, profit-based, cost-cutting construction only exacerbates the cost in human lives. To what extent can previous (and ongoing) governmental policies - affecting as they will the fiscal priorities and political powers of local authorities - be held to account for such weaknesses in housing and infrastructure? Such questions demand an at least more probing framework than that employed in Fallen City. As it is, Qi - making films under social and political constraints - must rely on allusion as well as a prior understanding of the oppressive and inhumane measures carried out by his country's government.

The economic forces only hinted at in Fallen City are part of a global system: in Kalyanee Mam's A River Changes Course (Kbang tik tonle, 2012), deforestation, pollution and an increasingly urban-centric economy impose impoverishment upon three families in rural Cambodia. In the jungles of northern Cambodia, the Samourn family face an onslaught of upheaval and uncertainty as the land around them is clear-cut; on the Tonle Sap River, meanwhile, the Math family's dependence upon fishing becomes precarious by the day as a result of overfishing; finally, Khieu Mok must part ways with her mother and seek work in the city in order to help pay off debts.

Though its title connotes a natural phenomenon (the Tonle Sap River featured herein runs north for half the year and south for the other), the poverty on display throughout is an outcome of governmental strategies and the transglobal pursuit of cheap labour - to say nothing of the prolonged effect of colonisation and civil war. For her part, though, Mam retains a ground-level perspective: but for intermittent breaks in the fourth wall, when the film's subjects directly verbalise their experiences, the observational style pairs Frederic Wiseman with early Lisandro Alonso (another cinematic cue, perhaps more deliberate, sees underpaid and overworked "workers leaving a factory"... checked by a security team employed to oversee what is known by advanced retailers as "loss prevention"). The result is an affectionate and sympathetic ode to the people who toil their way to a wretched sustenance, but one that also risks analogising their plight to the natural changes in a river's course.

Still, economic matters remain at the heart of things. The film counteracts, for example, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's all-loving pantheistic pleasantries when the repayment of a loan, borrowed to purchase land and a buffalo, is ruthlessly upheld. As a young lad sings to camera, "if you marry a city man you'll be short of money / if you marry me you'll have dollars to spend / darling, you'll have a Lexus and a villa / wherever you go you'll be modern and stylish". As irony has it, however, Khieu Mok leaves her mother to work in a garment factory in the city for an unthinkable $61 per month, while young Sari Math pursues a wage away from his river home only to become "a slave of the Chinese". Late in the film, Mam asks him if he remembers what he told her when she first met him years previously; embarrassed, he refuses to answer. Poignantly, Mam cuts to footage of the initial encounter, in which Sari voices his humble ambition to attain a diploma - poor infrastructure has precluded a means of commuting to the local school. The winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at this year's Sundance, A River Changes Course is a kind of aesthetic corrective to Beasts of the Southern Wild, last year's recipient of the same festival's Best Drama award.

A man and his "lovely cow(s)"

Given that it concludes by telling us, with plain-speaking text, that every day a family farm closes down and that in the last ten years dairy farms in England and Wales have halved, it's somewhat irritating that the makers of The Moo Man (2012) shirk more pressing questions in order to spend most of their time observing the perils (and joys!) of calving. A sweet but by no means short documentary on Hook & Son, a family-run dairy farm in south-east England, Andy Heathcote's follow-up to 2008's The Lost World of Mr. Hardy is a cute but toothless view of the disappearing trade of dairy farming. While the previous film was a similar portrait of an intergenerational family business - that perfects and retails tackle to the angling industry - The Moo Man follows amicable farmer Stephen Hook, who travels to Eastbourne with beloved cow Ida to launch a new milk round there, like some family-friendly homage to David Lynch's promotional campaign for Inland Empire.

Another nod, cued by the title itself, is to Herzog's Grizzly Man (2005), whose subject Timothy Treadwell mistakenly treated wild bears like an extended group of pals. Like Treadwell, Hook's fate is in the hands of hazard: if the former's quest to be at one with nature was doomed from the off, the latter's end is more of a death agony (like, spoiler alert, Ida the cow's), as his trade is slowly swamped by an industry run solely on profit. Like Herzog's subject, though, Heathcote's protagonist addresses his herd with a "me-boss, you-cow" affection that possibly extends to his private life, as suggested when Stephen speaks to his unseen wife with for-the-camera, quaint-and-harmless mockery ("Hook & Son" reeks of patriarchal tradition).

There's something amusing about Hook's ceaseless appeals to a herd of indifferent creatures, and also something that, once the saccharine wears thin forty minutes in, comes to resemble naivety. "He was never very friendly," Hook laments as he chops up the remains of a three-year-old cow (the Hooks only eat their own beef), while at other points he reiterates the long and happy life a bull calf is guaranteed at the farm in comparison to other farms. But the retention of an industry should have economic grounds rather than emotional ties, and so it's a shame that Heathcote doesn't get to money matters until 65 minutes into his 108-minute running time. Telling us that his milk costs 34p per litre to produce but sells only for 27p, Hook's belated acknowledgement of the financial hardship points to wider forces at work within the UK (and beyond), but when he goes on to say that "the family farm is dying quickly in this country", Heathcote takes his word for it, as he does regarding the government's uneven policy on TB eradication in cattle and badgers. There are economic and even political implications here, but the film fails to acknowledge them.

Approaching the financial and social woes presently plaguing Europe from a different angle, meanwhile, is Houston (2013), the second feature from writer-director Bastian Günther, in which hapless alcoholic businessman Clemens Trunshcka (Ulrich Tukur) is sent to Texas from Germany to headhunt the CEO of Houston Petroleum. Treading between dryly satiric and allegorically serious, Houston depicts a life of shiny veneers and superficial airs that are blinding and oppressive in equal measure. Michael Rother's electronic score channels Ry Cooder's accompaniment to Wim Wenders's Paris, Texas (1984) and competes for aural attention with excerpts from The Science of Getting Rich, Wallace Wattle's bland audiobook. Hotel rooms, meanwhile, are cohabited by corporate travellers and the ceaseless hum of air-con units, while mirrors, panes and the sun itself distort or obstruct our view of Clemens throughout.

As Clemens - whose name is truncated to "Clem" by Garret Dillahunt's Rob Wagner, an obnoxious American with demons and a belated epiphany of his own - Tukur is excellent. In wider shots he recalls a 1970s Robert Duvall, whose Tom Hagen was also sent west to do other people's dirty work; at more intimate moments, such as during a car ride to a round of golf in which he has little interest, he conceals his ennui with an impatience that goes unacknowledged. Truth is, Clemens jumps at the opportunity of a Texan trip but has very little interest in - and so even less knack for - headhunting, and fails miserably to fulfill his brief. Günther's arresting compositions paint Clem's trade as an ostensibly lucrative but ultimately lonely one (a three-way game of garden family ping-pong appears like a too-brief Malickian utopia). As both road movie and social critique, Houston offers distinctive and legitimate strokes - and it thankfully reins in the running joke involving a Baja Men ringtone.

More outwardly comedic than Houston is Austrian film Soldier Jane (Soldate Jeannette), whose oblique approach to the economic crisis begins promisingly before running its course as an improvised no-show. As facially blank as the cheques she depends upon, Fanni (deadpan Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg) buys a expensive dress and discards it immediately; cue a lively, post-Noé credits sequence proclaiming the film to be a "A European Film Conspiracy", a declaration that recalls mid-period Moodysson or mid-1960s Godard. Later in the film, Fanni attends the cinema and sleeps through the scene in Godard's own Vivre sa vie (1962), in which Anna Karina's Nana cried at Dreyer's 1928 silent classic La passion de Jeanne d'Arc. Later, Fanni announces she's off "to watch this funny movie, Jeanne Dielman" (referring to Chantal Akerman's 1975 quotidian epic); nonchalant references to such semi-canonical texts mark writer-director Daniel Hoesl as a mischief-maker in the making, though there are few traces thereafter of a coherent enough viewpoint to suggest anything more than an upstart.

For a while, however, optimism reigns. With brazen denial (or as another character puts it, "with one's eyes closed to the world"), Fanni lives out an existence of petty bourgeois decadence well beyond her means. When her landlord appears to tell her that she has not paid her rent for three years and that a court case is finally going ahead, she defers reality by making him machta tea ("it's from Japan") and rushing off to a pre-paid karate class. Returning home to find her locks have been changed, however, Fanni retreats to the mountains, burns a pile of cash and, following an eerie torchlit interlude, joins a small, remote farm. A shift in perspective is marked by the brutal, graphic depiction of a slaughtered cow's dismemberment; Fanni befriends Anna (Christina Reichsthaler) and rescues her from the farm's patriarchal exploitation. But forty minutes in, momentum halts and the narrative is derailed into an intriguing but evasive "second half" that gives little indication of having anything to say.

Earlier in the film, Fanni remarks to a fellow art gallery patron that in the Romanian parliament someone jumped from the rails to draw attention to social ills. The line seems to acknowledge how unfavourably Hoesl's own country's cinema - or perhaps that of Europe in general - compares to that of Romania when addressing the more pressing questions of the day; but Hoesl then provides us with only half a film as evidence of his own say on the matters that matter.