Scoped: I Have Always Been a Dreamer, Tokyo Waka, The Love Songs of Tiedan, Tower, East Hastings Pharmacy

08 April 2013

City poems, love songs, character studies and observations...

This is the first of two Scoped specials, on films screening at this year's Bradford International Film Festival; read the second part here.

I Have Always Been a Dreamer
(Sabine Gruffat, 2012 USA/United Arab Emirates)
Sabine Gruffat's latest feature film is a quietly remarkable essay on two otherwise disparate Ds - Detroit and Dubai. This towering tale of two cities probes a transglobal economy inhabited on the one hand by Baudrillardian utopias, in which both Disney and the British Museum have financial investments in the erection of an extravagant dinosaur park, and on the other by an abandoned landscape built upon human exploitation and destruction (no guessing which city's which). Dreamer's title is quoted from a re-enacted speech given during tours at the Henry Ford, "America's Greatest Destination", a museum celebrating one of capitalism's great pioneers. Today, in contrast to Detroit's now-obsolete Fordist industries, Dubai grows in terms of pure real estate, a city built upon a service industry. Just as Gruffat discovers that there is a correlation between construction booms and financial busts, you can't help but feel one city's fortune is at the ongoing expense of the other. The consequence, as one Australian ex-pat now living in Dubai points out, is an unprecedented global wealth that is more concentrated than ever. The focus upon Detroit recalls 2011's Detropia, by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, but unlike that film Gruffat's is bolstered by better-selected interviewees - local historians, artists and scholars; Dreamer also avoids aestheticising Detroit's plight by allowing itself a kind of ugliness, an asymmetrical style. While a film made entirely of fixed-camera set-ups might have been tempting, for instance, Gruffat frequently matches the sense of a world of dualities by freeing her camera up and revealing the two locales from moving transport and even a ferris wheel. 16mm textures reconfigure space as an obsolete, alien world: in some way, the images already resemble found-footage science-fiction.
(Screens at BIFF on Sunday 14 and Tuesday 16 April.)

Tokyo Waka
(John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson, 2012 Japan/USA)
In comparison to the above, Tokyo Waka concerns itself with a single city, focusing upon the relationship between its two chief cohabitants: its 13 million-strong human population and the 20,000 wild crows who thrive off its waste. It's an original framework through which to present the Japanese capital, making refreshingly sparing use of its night-time neons. A selection of interviewees offer differing views on the bothersome birds - a tofu vendor, a Buddhist priest, a homeless woman, an architect - and directors Haptas and Samuelson complement their two subjects by exploring in both vertical and horizontal terms: ground-level views of birds flying high above conjure ideas of dwelling and displacement, while the city's outward expansion carries its own ecological implications. Such tensions find their fitting symbol in Masahisa Fusake, the great Japanese photographer, whose 1986 work Ravens was voted in 2010 as the best photobook of the past three decades; Fusake's sad story - he fell down stairs in 1992 and subsequently lost both his mobility and other faculties, before dying last year - adds a haunting touch to Tokyo Waka's riffs on vertical and horizontal movement.
(Screens at BIFF on Tuesday 16 and Friday 19 April.)

The Love Songs of Tiedan
(Hao Jie, 2012 China)
Following his 2010 debut feature Single Man, director Hao Jie makes Mei Jie, a playful and accumulatively engaging musical set in a tiny village in Shanxi Province between the 1960s and 1980s. Hopping between timeframes, the film recounts how in 1966 the Cultural Revolution banned the local folk-singing custom Er ran tai. This has in the film a prolonged effect on eponymous protagonist Tiedan (played as an adult by Feng Si), who in the earlier period is a six-year-old with a boy's crush on local beauty May (Ye Lan); emotional complications arise a decade or so later for Tiedan when May returns - with her three daughters. Hao's style is allusional, and the fractured narrative lends an episodic rhythm as well as tonal dissonance, which makes the casual suggestions of domestic violence and patriarchal suppression somewhat problematic. As a tale of bittersweet retrospection, though, Love Songs wears and peels its layers with effective subtlety - plenty of scenes in which characters clothe and unclothe (themselves and each other), and themes of sexual and temporal fluidity complement such motifs as well as each other. Du Pu's HD cinematography is double-edged: though it flattens things texturally, it does provide a fitting blanket to the dynamics between folk and digital, between old and new customs, as best exemplified by that scene in which a dragshow of old is drowned out by a louder electric band of new... though some syntheses of traditions suggest ways forward. But the moments that stand out here are those intermittent few in which Tiedan/Si stands atop a cliff and serenades the green valley below.
(Screens at BIFF on Sunday 14 and Tuesday 16 April.)

(Kazik Radwanski, 2012 Canada)
As debut features go, writer-director Kazik Radwanski's Tower announces a talent to watch. It's evident early on here that the film is going to be an over-the-shoulder character study of Derek (Derek Bogart), a 34-year-old who lives with his parents and works part-time for his uncle's construction business while aspiring to a career in animation. Though it's the kind of suitably listless drama that cuts mid-scene from its protagonist talking about carpentry one minute to him having sex the next, Tower is far from being a pitying narrative about a tortured artist. For starters, Derek isn't wholly likeable: there's a certain arrogance to the way he captures pics of girls he doesn't know in a nightclub, and because an excruciating scene in which he breaks up with his girlfriend (Nicole Fairbairn) is filmed from the latter's perspective, we're invited to sympathise with her more than agree with him. There's also a sensitivity present, though, and one might relate to Derek as he gathers his (understanding) family to showcase all 14 seconds of his newest animated clip - an entire month's worth of work. In a cut-throat world of expectation and commercial viability, one sympathises also with the way in which Derek defers completion of his projects, out of avoiding rejection as much as from a lack of confidence. Such an intimate film as Tower will live or die on the strength of its central performance, of course, and as his fictional namesake, Derek Bogart nails this Sheldon Cooper-type, giving an agitated, confrontational edge to someone who'd rather forget just exactly how he did wake up one morning with a deep cut to his face...
(Screens at BIFF on Monday 15 and Sunday 21 April.)

East Hastings Pharmacy
(Antoine Bourges, 2012 Canada)
Screening before Tower at BIFF is East Hastings Pharmacy - on which Radwanski worked as associate producer - a 47-minute "days in the life of" depiction of a methadone clinic in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Directed by Antoine Bourges, Pharmacy's observational set-up makes for "experiential" viewing: it facilitates ruminations on the sociopolitical discussions that pertain to methadone programmes and to governmental drugs policies, while its own provocations are only subtly given. This is not to say, however, that the film is devoid of comment. Despite its geo-specific title, Pharmacy has an anyplace-anytime feel to it, and its inclusion of real-life methadone patients, whose emaciated cheeks and toothless smiles indicate prolonged abuse, foregrounds the unique relationship that develops between pharmacist and patient. Though this is a very human relationship, Bourges shoots from either side of the clear security screen that stands between both parties; this shot/reverse shot pattern highlights their emotional and social disconnection. In contrast, patients are often framed in two- and three-shots, conversing about their lives and plans for the future. The only soundtrack to this everyday cycle is a television, on which we hear a programme about the US military: the implications - of a domestic tragedy exacerbated by aggressive foreign policies and mispent government initiatives (US, Canada or otherwise) - are wholly appropriate.
(Screens at BIFF before each screening of Tower.)