By Mark Cutler, Tara Hillegeist, Joshua Minsoo Kim, Samuel Mclemore, and Astrid Rose
Now in its 48th year, the New Directors/New Films festival has consistently proven its worth as one of the most rewarding and astutely-programmed film festivals in the world. Over the years, the talent that the programmers choose to highlight provide insight into some of the most interesting new filmmakers around. This year’s selection is no less impressive, and Tone Glow has reviewed eleven of its slated feature films below.
Director: Burak Çevik
Runtime: 72 mins
A moody and beautiful film, Belonging can at first seem too insubstantial and flimsy to deserve even its skimpy seventy-three minute running time. But as the film progresses, it changes gears significantly, the full extent of what is being attempted cinematically becoming exceedingly clear. In Belonging, Burak Çevik attempts to do with noir and its trappings what fine chefs do with traditional homestyle cuisine all the time—transform something mundane into something elegant by “deconstructing” it. Burak separates the tropes and styles of the noir genre and then splices them back together into a unique amalgamation. He primarily accomplishes this by inverting the usual arc of a noir, situating the moment of bliss—the romantic encounter that eventually drives the crime to be committed—as the main focal point of the film. The crime itself is treated only in exposition, as a type of context for this romantic encounter. This structure creates an aching tension in the otherwise placid and charming romance. We know that fate is hanging over Pelin (Eylül Su Sapan) and Onur (Çağlar Yalçınkaya) the entire time they talk.
This exposition is laid out as a formal exercise, robotic and almost hypnotic: a monotonous voice-over explains in great length the details of a romance and a murder, while the camera fixes on all of the locations being described in the story. These locations are all abandoned and empty—an actor isn’t seen on screen until almost thirty minutes into the film—and the cumulative effect of all this is a sense of dread and misery. By turns charming, natural, and poetic, Sapan and Onur are very strong. They carry the film effortlessly through long sections of dense dialogue, and are imminently believable as two strangers falling in love. Their section of the film is lush and organic, filled with long takes and striking colors—a real contrast to the exposition that preceded them. Generally, though, the holistic combination of these two parts is not handled well. It feels unfinished, unpolished—like two floorboards that refuse to lay flush with each other. Still it feels vital and new: fresh blood in an old genre. —Samuel Mclemore
A Family Submerged
Director: María Alché
Runtime: 91 mins
Film as a medium is an especially potent vehicle for ghost stories because it haunts the viewer with fragmented portions of the past, demanding their interpretation. There is always something missing from a cinematic frame; the pertinent question is whether the frame draws the eye to this lack it suffers from in a rewarding way, or if it is less than the sum of what is overlooked. Marcela (Mercedes Morán) enters María Alché’s A Family Submerged haunted, her deceased sister Rina an unseen audience she seeks out in apostrophe; the camera keeps itself close by Marcela, and we follow not her eyes but her fingers, her mouth, the hunch of her tense shoulders in warm natural light. Helene Louvart’s cinematography mixes the frame into a dust-hazed suffusion of pale days and twilight bruises; as Rina’s unbodied life stirs the calmness of Marcela’s life up, shaking its simple fluid dynamics into their constituent parts—the old ghosts, the fresh blushes of loneliness and yearning—she conjures the faces of many phantoms in the flesh, but never her own. Her touch is at once everywhere, and her appearance nowhere.
Marcela has lived a long time, her life measured in accumulated appliances and cramped, aching gestures, and another movie might drown her under the weight of that. Morán’s performance is the gravity that the film anchors itself to, and she holds the frame as it sways and rocks, the lines at the edges of her eyes and mouth straining like cresting waves pushed by the tidal forces beneath. But director Maria Alché respects Marcela’s surface tension; in the end, she is still here, and she is alive—the waves in her heart are only cresting, not yet breaking. There is room for Marcela's aches to blend with Rina's absence, but she isn’t alone; there’s also room in everyone else’s leftover lives for Marcela to flow through them, in a careful and careless dancing around what’s still here. We have seen all the things they never discuss, and—for now—it adds up to enough. —Tara Hillegeist
Director: Andrea Bussmann
Runtime: 70 mins
Bussmann’s feature debut Fausto is a kind of retelling of the German legend. More accurately, the story of Faust is in here, but it is only one story among dozens of stories we see—or, more often, are told—in this puzzle box of a film. Most of the stories involve supernatural bargains of some kind or other: gifts that come with severe costs or curses that come with silver linings. There’s a haunted house with money stuffed in the walls, a witch who grants wishes, wandering phantom limbs, and animals that see into the future. Also included, however, is the true story of Columbus’s own demonic bargain with the indigenous Jamaican population in 1504: knowing of an impending lunar eclipse, he threatened to make the moon disappear if they didn’t continue to feed, clothe, and shelter his crew. Then he did, and the Jamaicans relented.
These stories, like the characters who tell them, criss-cross and repeat one another to produce a general sense of the fantastic, blurring the lines between history, myth, literature and superstition. This tiny coastal town, we feel, harbors mysterious and sinister forces. So much of the film takes place in near-total darkness, and, through Bussmann’s camera, characters seem to live under a shadow even on a cloudless day. Bussmann shot the film on the Oaxacan coast, with a prosumer camera, mostly non-professional actors, and effectively no budget. Within these restrictive conditions—albeit with the benefit of some absolutely stunning natural scenery—she has managed to craft a film which feels almost cosmic in scope. She is able to weave documentary realism and gothic horror together in a way that makes the titular German fable feel entirely at home on this idyllic but desolate beach. When we finally do meet Faust, it comes as no surprise: he is a haunted man, living in the shadow of a diabolical pact—but here, so is everyone else. —Mark Cutler
A Land Imagined
Director: Yeo Siew Hua
Runtime: 95 mins
Starting out as a politically conscious neo-noir and ending somewhere at the bleeding edge of modern Asian art film, Yeo Siew Hua's much-buzzed A Land Imagined is a welcome addition to the new Pan-Asian wave. With its undercooked mystery and baldly metaphorical characters, the clearest subject A Land Imagined offers is that of Singapore itself. Much dialogue is given over to the monumental physical changes that have occurred in the country and the effects they’ve had—both the metaphysical plight of an unstable identity, and the grinding physical labor and exploitation that made it possible. A detective (played well by the bleary Peter Yau) trusts his dreams as much as his memory, and who can blame him? If every place you remember from thirty years ago is gone—if you can barely even recognize the city you’ve lived in your entire life—are your memories worth believing in anymore?
Practically every scene showcases Singapore's construction zones and the massive machines that tower over them. Hua revels in the textures and sounds of a construction site; as the detective asks perfunctory questions about a missing person, Hua instead lets his camera wander over to a rock crusher and a forklift, the workers dwarfed by their machines. Starting from a place that questions the validity of Singaporean memory and identity, and taking clear cues from his forebears in Asian art cinema, Hua manages a brilliant use of the elliptical split narrative. He showcases the “two worlds” of Singapore: the elders who can remember what Singapore was like before any economic boom happened, constantly bewildered by the skyrocketing change around them; and the poor immigrants who actually build that change. Trapped in a neon purgatory, they too dream more than they can remember.
While it mostly manages to evade cliche, the film can't escape the essential frisson between its two modes: existential detective story and ambitious digital age art film. It's easy to forgive the undercooked or clumsy elements in a film that is both beautiful and ambitious, but it doesn't stop the film from being drained of energy by its end. —Samuel Mclemore
Director: Ognjen Glavonić
Runtime: 98 mins
Ognjen Glavonić’s debut feature The Load is set two weeks into NATO’s months-long bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. Yet the film has an out-of-time, post-apocalyptic air— it largely takes place in a grey, hilly landscape, littered with burned and still-burning buildings, where radio signals are jammed and phone lines are cut. Vlada (Leon Lucev) has been hired by the military to drive a locked truck from one base to another. Glavonić makes it obvious enough what’s in the truck; even Vlada seems aware, although he pretends or tries to believe otherwise.
The teenage Paja is the film’s only other really developed character. He hitches with Vlada, claiming to be traveling to Germany, but we only follow him as far as his seemingly abandoned hometown, where he dwells in its near-pitch darkness and total silence. The film often lingers on the children and teenagers in the extreme periphery of Vlada’s journey, following them for a minute or five into their own lives. There is an overall sense of abandonment. The kids seek entertainment by stealing things, starting fires, and otherwise getting into mischief, but none of the adults seem to notice or care. Perhaps it is this generation—who would be closer to Glavonić’s own age at the time of the intervention—who are intended as the sympathetic characters, rather than the gruff and half-wittingly complicit Vlada. Their vignettes contribute to the overall sense of apocalypse. The younger kids and teens have grown up in near-perpetual uncertainty; for them, there really is no future. They are not simply lost; there is nowhere they’re supposed to be going.
The Load is easy to watch, given its bleak landscape, grim subject, and flat, greenish-grey cinematography. Glavonić is confident with his camera, letting it wander just the right amount to break up the monotony and claustrophobia of the truck’s cab which serves as the main setting. It is, despite the gravity of its central situation, a quiet, ambiguous film. If it remains somewhat obscure to contemplate—if we feel that its ambiguity eventually gives way to shapelessness—it may be because The Load presents only one facet of Glavonić’s complex and evolving relationship to this era of his (and his country’s) past. It is an evolution we will continue to follow closely. —Mark Cutler
Director: Phuttiphong Aroonpheng
Runtime: 105 mins
Thai writer-director Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s Manta Ray begins with a dedication: “For the Rohingyas.” While persecuted and stateless for decades, the people of this ethnic group have suffered greatly in recent years due to state-sanctioned military offensives and calculated measures to ensure their starvation. As such, an overwhelming majority of Rohingyas have fled from their home in Myanmar’s Rakhine State to find safety in neighboring countries. The government’s treatment of the refugees has been deplorable—human trafficking camps and mass graves have been found—and Manta Ray functions as an oblique portrait of Aroonpheng’s anger about the situation.
The film opens evocatively, with an armed hunter perusing a dense forest, his vest and the flora around him illuminated by multicolored lights. The scene is soundtracked by minimal strings and the rhythmic chirping of insects—a sonic palette that bolsters the lush imagery, effectively establishing the film’s serious but ethereal tone. We see mysterious men digging graves and quickly witness the contrasting work life of one of them: a nameless fisherman with bleached blond hair (Wanlop Rungkumjad). One day, this fisherman finds a man (Aphisit Hama) collapsed on a stretch of muddy ground—his prostrate body lying against a haunting backdrop of entangled mangrove roots—and rescues the injured man and tends to his wounds.
The man the fisherman saves is never identified, but one assumes that he’s of Rohingya descent. He’s mute, too, and in the numerous near-wordless sequences that depict this new relationship is a sense of camaraderie. The different diegetic sounds—from the hypnotic crashing of waves to the crunching of dry leaves, the scraping of spoons to the sloshing of vomit—instill a meditative ambiance. The horrors and tragedies that the Rohingya man faced are unknown, but the lack of dialogue makes clear his need for reflection and quiescence.—Joshua Minsoo Kim
Read the complete review at Slant.
Director: Luke Lorentzen
Runtime: 81 mins
There are fewer than 45 government-funded emergency ambulances in Mexico City—far from the sufficient number of vehicles needed to provide for the capital city’s nine million residents. This inadequacy has resulted in private, family-run businesses providing the same service, one of which is operated by the Ochoa family. Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family follows the Ochoas and, in the process, underlines issues plaguing the country’s healthcare system. The situation is dire: it takes 40 minutes for a boy with a gunshot wound to get an ambulance. More than simply prove the need for timely healthcare provisions, though, Midnight Family points to how for-profit healthcare can be disastrous.
When the Ochoas help a highschool girl physically abused by her boyfriend, the girl almost immediately asks a question regarding the cost of her care, serving as a grim reminder that emergency treatment is something people are willing to forgo due to the price tag. And when the girl’s family is unable to pay, the Ochoas work through another night without compensation. They’re happy to have helped someone, of course, but they’re upset with the outcome. An early scene depicts the family’s home life, and reveals their unstable financial situation, a threat made all the more evident from their language, the tone of their voices, and their actions throughout the film. As such, Midnight Family’s constant suspense relies on two crucial components: both the urgency that defines the life of an EMT, and that which fuels the family’s desperate need for financial stability.
In one of the film’s most frustrating sequences, police officers threaten to arrest the Ochoas for “stealing” the ‘bodies’ in their ambulance; there’s deep stress in knowing that this interrogation prolongs the trip to the hospital, but it also means the family could lose-out on money. Midnight Family is consequently at its most compelling when it makes inextricable the link between the Ochoa’s moral ambiguity and the government's failed healthcare system—everything seems broken, and everyone just wants to survive. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
MS Slavic 7
Directors: Sofia Bohdanowicz, Deragh Campbell
Runtime: 64 mins
MS Slavic 7 gets it title from a call number in Harvard’s Houghton Library. Contained in its corresponding collection of works is 25 letters written by the poet Zofia Bohdanowiczowa, the great-grandmother of director Sofia Bohdanowicz. These letters, addressed to Nobel Prize-nominated author Józef Wittlin, address Bohdanowiczowa’s admiration for Wittlin’s work, and her unceasing desire for him to spend time in the countryside (she believes it to be a far more inspirational setting than the city). Audrey (co-director Deragh Campbell) is effectively a stand-in for Bohdanowicz, and she spends a large majority of the film reading, contemplating, and conversing about these letters.
What MS Slavic 7 so effortlessly captures in its brisk 64 minutes is the deep pleasure of processing such thoughts. There are, for example, extended sequences that find Audrey verbally explaining her thoughts on what she’s found—the motifs that characterize Bohdanowiczowa’s writing, the inherent objecthood of letters, references to On Kawara’s I Got Up—and they’re presented without interruption. These sequences are preceded by quieter passages in which Audrey leafs through the letters and takes notes, the camera capturing both her act of research and the letters themselves.
But for all these moments in which Audrey crystallizes her interpretation of the material, there are tense scenes that find her being invalidated by others. Her aunt (Elizabeth Rucker), chastises her for being the literary executor of the poet’s estate and wanting to curate an exhibit to showcase them. Similarly, but on a less frustrating scale, is a conversation that Audrey has with a translator—Audrey is curious about the grammatical nature of a certain sentence, but the translator considers such fixations trivial.
This overarching sense of progress being halted by naysayers is exquisitely matched by the soundtrack. With Bach-composed organ pieces, MS Slavic 7 sets up these moments of grandeur that are abruptly ended with the halting of music. In the beginning of the film, austere wide shots capture Audrey walking around the library before the soundtrack cuts to diegetic sounds of the locale’s insects. Later, another organ piece is heard while Audrey converses with her aunt. The aunt proves particularly stubborn, and a sudden cut to Audrey at the library’s front desk is accompanied by the music’s swift transition to the lone sound of a zipper—Audrey is unhelped by those around her, and she’s forced to do this task without the support of others.
These moments are lightly humorous, but they underline the pent-up frustrations that occur for many 20-somethings wanting to grow. In the film’s final moments, we witness Audrey on a bus ride home before falling asleep in bed, personal notes and scans of the letters sprawled out across the bed sheets. The sound of her scathing aunt plays over the stately soundtrack, but the music comes to completion during the credits: a signal that it’s only in her dreams where she can advance without butting heads with others. Text from one of the letters appears onscreen while she lie in bed: “[...] everyone has sadness inside themselves, how could it be otherwise for people without their homeland, nor families [...] For me, that barely perceptible sadness, was poetry, was so beautiful.” Audrey’s time spent with the letters was a quest, at least in part, of self-discovery. There’s a sense that it may end in the same way it did for her great-grandmother: a wistfulness that was in no small part imposed by others. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Director: Shengze Zhu
Runtime: 124 mins
While Twitch is easily the most well-known live-streaming platform in the English-speaking world, China has numerous streaming platforms, each of which dwarf it by as many as 160 million active users per day. In total, at a conservative estimate, we as a species are live-broadcasting on the order of centuries’ worth of content every hour. Zhu Shengze's Present.Perfect. culls just two hours of footage from this effectively bottomless supply, presenting something like a cross-section of the entertainment that some half-billion of China’s citizens tune in to watch on a daily basis.
At first, the sheer variety of these streams impresses. There are streams from construction sites and the tops of cranes, factories and farms. Many streams seem more like security camera feeds than sources of entertainment. After a while, however, the film settles on a cast of just a few streamers (“anchors”) who generally speak directly to (the bottom left corner of) the camera, responding to their viewers’ chatroom comments as though to a endless series of well-considered interview prompts. The majority of the film’s chosen protagonists live with congenital or inflicted conditions that leave them noticeably visibly atypical. They talk about their conditions and their lives candidly and cheerily, and swat away the chatroom trolls with well-rehearsed quips.
The decision to focus on just a handful of anchors was probably necessary to give the film any sense of narrative momentum. But this restricted focus never meshes with the film’s far more panoramic opening chapters. Does Present.Perfect. want to say something about streaming as a broader phenomenon or medium, or is it a film about the inner lives of a handful of streamers? If the former is the case, that statement is lost in the specifics of the lead anchors’ lives. Yet if it’s the latter, we never get a clear sense of why these anchors were chosen as subjects, why they merit outsized representation compared even to the dozens of other anchors scattered at the edges of the film. Present.Perfect. will, for many Western viewers, be a revealing glimpse into a largely unknown world—yet it leaves us unsatisfied, wishing for a deeper look. —Mark Cutler
Director: Camille Vidal-Naquet
Runtime: 99 mins
Camille Vidal-Naquet’s debut feature Sauvage follows a young French sex worker (Félix Maritaud) in an unsentimental, lived-in look at his day-to-day existence. He goes unnamed in the film, which in the hands of a more blunt filmmaker would signal that he stands in for all the beautiful nameless boys who litter the Bois de Boulogne. Here, he may not have a name but he is his own person, a sharply drawn composite of the men Vidal-Naquet met over the “two to three”+ years of research that went into the film.
Vidal-Naquet is not a sex worker: he volunteered with Aux captifs la libération, a homeless association in Paris, to ground his screenplay in lived detail. How much of it would ring true to the men he worked with I can’t say; I can only appreciate the lack of histrionics in Vidal-Naquet’s rendering of his marginalized characters when compared to other cinema. The sex is shot in a frank, naturalistic manner, neither uglied up nor idealized. Some of it looks fun, some of it looks grim; some look dehumanizing and some look tender.
The same approach holds true for how the film depicts hustling. Sauvage is as inextricable from its queerness as it is from its social milieu. What the characters do along their sleepy green strip of road is quite clearly a job; the man and his companions don’t always like it, but they know how to do it and it brings them income. One guy swears he’s not even gay but he’s the first person to take one of the few reliable routes out of the underclass: moving away with an older man. Vidal-Naquet described it as “like filming a baker making his bread”—a skilled trade, albeit one misunderstood by the majority of outsiders.
Vidal-Naquet and cinematographer Jacques Girault opt for a rough handheld style to trace a line through the film’s formless narrative. A few unsteady Hong Sang-soo-style zooms set the tone early on. The camera picks up moments of tenderness and vulnerability in nearly every scene. The gorgeous Maritaud, who was also in Yann Gonzalez’s Knife+Heart last year, has an easy grace that defines the reserved protagonist with a dancer’s physicality.
The film wanders right up until the end, taking its cue from its instinctive, aimless lead character. Sauvage is thorough in its depiction of his precariat life, lived mostly in clients’ beds or on sidewalks. He has one set of clothes and eats out of trashcans. A persistent dry cough and an affinity for crack aren’t things he conceives of as able—or needing—to be cured. A doctor says she wants to get him off crack for a few weeks and he asks, “What for?” Pain is simply one component of existence, like beauty, euphoria, numbness, dissociation, intimacy, and peace. We watch all these things come and go in turn. —Astrid Rose
Director: Qiu Sheng
Runtime: 113 mins
Qui Sheng’s debut feature follows a land surveyor named Xia Hao (Mason Lee) attempting to determine if a district is safe to live in following a series of natural disasters. While in an abandoned school, he comes across a notebook. As he starts to read it, the film transitions into an almost 50 minute long sequence that tracks a group of schoolchildren living in the same district, one of whom is also named Xia Hao. The students play, go to school, crush on each other, and one by one disappear, never to be seen again. Afterwards, the film centers on the adult Xia Hao, following him as he continues to survey the land, the children clearly weighing heavily on his mind. Is this sequence a dream? A story in a notebook? Adult Xia Hao’s actual memories?
This elliptical bifurcated plot structure is important because it allows Suburban Birds the ability to play coy with many of its basic facts, deepening itself through contradiction and mystery rather than revelation or explanation. Events seem to have strange resonances with each other, rather than direct connections. Relationships and characters are doubled throughout the film’s two halves, but instead of adding balance to the plot’ structuring, it all seems purposely lopsided.
On top of all this, Sheng layers each section with its own unique stylistic schema. He practically revels in the opportunity to show off what he is capable of as a director, and with a crew packed with veterans of some of the greatest films of Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien—editor Liao Ching-song and sound designer Tu Duu-chih—Sheng more than delivers. The cinematography is lush, the sound design sparkling, the camera constantly moving or cutting in surprising or intriguing ways. This, combined with the warmth, humor, and the finely observed details in Sheng's vision is ultimately what makes Suburban Birds an engaging and enjoyable watch, and one of the most impressive debuts of recent years. —Samuel Mclemore