Weekend Herald - Canvas
Big screen: This is the winter of our content
Tom Augustine wraps up week one of the NZIFF
This year’s New Zealand International Film Festival kicked off with a bang, with some exciting, startling, thoughtprovoking offerings. Here are some of the best titles I’ve seen from the first week.
(dir. Lulu Wang. PG) The best so far, Chinese-american filmmaker Lulu Wang delivered a knockout with this incredibly personal story of a Chinese family that elects to keep their grandmother’s terminal cancer diagnosis from her. A wise, funny, deeply moving film — told through the eyes of family members who chose to move to the United States — about the clash of Eastern and Western philosophies and the psychological and spiritual quandaries of diasporic cultures returning to their homeland. Star Awkwafina is sensational, as is Zhao Shuzhen as Nai Nai, the grandmother, in an impossibly heartfelt turn. A delight, a film that finds true universality in its specificity.
UNDER THE SILVER LAKE
(dir. David Robert Mitchell. R16) Undoubtedly one of the more polarising titles at the fest, American indie darling David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up to the astonishing It Follows is this hard-to-describe, paranoia-soaked California neo-noir, which loosely follows Andrew Garfield’s slacker dude attempting to solve the mysterious disappearance of a neighbour. A hypnotic, occasionally maddening Hollywood fable with echoes of Mulholland Drive and The Big Lebowski, Silver Lake tackles toxic male entitlement and a world utterly soaked in media with equal amounts of bitterness and humour. Destined to be a cult classic.
(dir. Jennifer Kent. R16) A gnarly and despairing Australian odyssey in the vein of The Proposition and The Rover, Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook is a tough examination of the violence and casual cruelty of colonialera Australia. Following a young woman (Aisling Franciosi, remarkable) on a quest for revenge against soldiers who committed a terrible crime against her, the film is brutal and, at times, questionable in its use of sexual and racial violence. The viewer’s mileage will vary according to their tolerance levels, but also in their trust in the film-maker’s intentions. I’m still troubled by this one, but was stirred and haunted by its imagery long after I left the theatre.
HALE COUNTY, THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING
(dir. Ramell Ross. Exempt) A fascinating, lyrical documentary portrait of black American life in Alabama, this film from Ramell Ross dives deep into a rural black community to explore the richness of culture and life in that space from within. A rare and illuminating glimpse of the variety of these lives, so often dismissed or stereotyped by the mass media, the film collates a mosaic of moments, little snatches of information that colour in the fringes of this world. Astonishing imagery and thought-provoking juxtapositions abound — kids frolicking in tornado season, a basketballer nailing every shot, a funeral glimpsed from far away. Powerful and revelatory.
(dir. Peter Strickland. R13) One of the more gonzo features this year, British film-maker Peter Strickland continues his winningly campy, Giallo-infused streak following The Duke of Burgundy and Berberian Sound Studio with this glorious trash-art slasher about a killer dress. Sumptuous camerawork frames the ever-escalating nuttiness of the film, as a lonely-hearted woman (Marianne Jeanbaptiste, sinking her teeth into a meaty role) buys the dress from a cult-like department store. Shocking, frequently hilarious commentary on capitalism, consumerism and retail ensues. May prove to be a bit much for some viewers, particularly with a slightly engorged running time.
(dir. Philippe Lesage. R16) Thrillingly mysterious in its structure and execution, this Quebecois coming-of-age tale focuses on two siblings as they each experience their first loves at the same time. The film takes what could be fairly rote coming-of-age tropes and inverts them through provocative cinematography and some ambiguous narrative turns that suggest a lot more is going on beneath the surface. A late-in-the-game sequence of sexual assault feels unnecessarily gratuitous and the film’s out-of-nowhere third act may prove frustrating to some viewers. For those willing to embrace the mystery, however, Genesis is an under-theradar gem.
(dir. Todd Douglas Miller. Exempt) The result of an exhaustive archiving and restoring process, Apollo 11 is a largely engrossing deep-focus examination of the historic mission to the moon from newly discovered footage from the frontlines. A remarkable technical achievement, the footage is pristine — cunningly edited and sound mixed to allow for full immersion in the moment-to-moment tension of the mission. The film naturally drags a little in the middle, and it’s hard not to feel like we’ve heard the story before. However, as an archival exercise and an introduction to the staggering work of those involved, it’s essential viewing.
FIRE WILL COME
(dir. Oliver Laxe. M) Redefining the term “slow burn”, this quietly simmering offering from Spain is saturated with stunning, evocative imagery and spiritual mystery. It is the story of a man released from imprisonment for arson, following his return home and director Oliver Laxe’s observant, patient approach is a fascinatingly low-key exercise in tension. Somewhat lacking in character development or narrative, it can be a frustrating watch, as its quiet, reserved characters are treated almost too-subtly, at the expense of forging a real emotional connection. A late-stage wildfire provides some astonishing watching — the longawaited payoff raising more questions than answers.