NYFF Diary Part One: Asian Mediations on Death, Portuguese Politics, and Perverse American Legends

Cemetery of Splendor

A scene from ‘Cemetery of Splendor’, the latest by Thai auteur Apichatpong ‘Joe’ Weerasethakul

The New York Film Festival doesn’t officially begin until a couple of week from now, but the press screenings started this Tuesday. I tried to go to as many screenings as I could fit in my schedule, and will use this diary as a way of sharing some brief and hopefully helpful thoughts on the movies I’m seeing. This entry covers the first three days of screenings, and if there is a recurring theme to the festival so far, it’s slow-paced movies with elements of magical realism.

Day One: 

Journey to the Shore (directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
The first screening of the festival was this Japanese drama, which debuted at the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes earlier this year, where it won the “direction” award for Kurosawa. It’s the story of a woman (Eri Fukatsu) whose life has been deeply affected by the death of her husband (Tadanobu Asano), and will be even more deeply affected when the husband returns in the form of a spirit. The film establishes itself early on as a road trip movie, with the couple visiting different small villages through which the husband wandered as a newly dead spirit before reconnecting with his wife.

Kurosawa uses image and sound to create a number of very evocative, and sometimes moving images. Expressionistic lighting is used to emphasize certain elements of the frame, and sound is used to either contrast or overwhelm the images (as is the case with the sentimental score and the thundering sound of a waterfall). Sadly, sitting through this movie is a huge slog. I am not an enemy of measured pacing, but the lack of specificity in the main characters’ personality and their relationship results in a disconnect between the story and the audience’s interest. The images are beautiful, but the emotions ring hollow.

Day Two:

Arabian Nights: Volume 1 – The Restless One (Directed by Miguel Gomes)
I saw two movies on Wednesday, and a couple of thematic similarities between the movies became clear pretty quickly. For example, both were curiously interested in erections. More significantly, though, both of these are movies that find their directors trying to paint a specific portrait about their countries while populating them with all kinds of re-imagined sounds and visuals based as much on folk traditions as in sheer weird originality.

The first of these movies is Miguel Gomes’s epic re-interpretation of the Arabian Nights as a three volume, six hours plus philosophical treatise on contemporary Portugal and the austerity measures that have deeply impoverished the country. Gomes feels strongly about the subject, making the movie as much of an angry protest as it is a melancholy love letter for his country. Due to scheduling problems, I will only be able to watch the first volume of the three, and thus feel a little awkward commenting on a movie that is only actually just a third of a movie, so I will only share a few short thoughts:

As most movies comprised of specific segments, some are better than others. Arabian Nights opens with a meta-filmic prologue that presents us with testimonies by the Portuguese working class before Gomes presents himself as the Sherezhade of his own movie. From there (roughly 20 minutes in) we jump into the “actual” stories. Like I said, some are better than others, and Volume One has the misfortune of being front-loaded with its best segment (the one that features the aforementioned erections). The two segments that follow have their own strengths, but neither feels as tightly constructed or as biting as the first one.

I will admit that Volume One made me curious to see the whole of Gomes’s thesis, but six hours of my time might be too much to ask for a movie whose first volume already felt longer than it should’ve been.

Cemetery of Splendor (Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
The second movie of the day wasn’t quite as ambitious, but it was equally idiosyncratic. Weerasethakul is the director behind some of the most celebrated movies of recent years, including the Palm D’Or winning Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives. This was my first experience with a Weerasethakul movie, and I fear it may not have been the ideal introduction.

This a movie with a deliberately measured pace, as it follows a middle-aged woman (Jenjira Pongpas) who spends her time caring for injured soldiers in a small town hospital and talking to spirits… I think. I’m entirely sure what the paranormal aspects of the film are or represent, but I am most certain they are there. The main character is one of the film’s biggest strengths, thanks to Pongpas matter-of-fact sense of humor, and Weerasethakul’s kooky scenes. The more humorous scenes in the movie are quite remarkable, and stand out as one of the festival’s highlights so far.

The connection, however, didn’t extend to the more dramatic moments, as I couldn’t reach the movie’s emotional core. A pivotal scene featuring a scar shook me, but I didn’t quite get the nature and importance of the main relationship. A re-watch might be needed in order to fully appreciate the film. Or maybe I should start looking into the rest of Weerasethakul’s work. I will say this: Cemetery of Splendor is good enough that I will certainly do the latter.

Day 3: 

De Palma (Directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow)
I kind of cringed at the idea of this movie, since documentaries about living directors tend to be pretty disposable. One recent example of this would be Jodorowsky’s Dunewhich is overwhelmed by adulation for its subject and fails to say anything worthwhile. Having recently rediscovered Noah Baumbach’s work, I had trust in the director to make something worthwhile out of this project, and while De Palma isn’t quite outstanding, it is considerably better than movies of its kind tend to be.

The movie is basically 90 minutes of De Palma talking about himself and his movies. He takes us through his career in relatively detail and without skipping any of his movies -no matter if they’re flops or hits. The fact that this is just De Palma talking and reflecting on his own work is what makes the movie valuable. If you’re the kind of person who would have any kind of interest to spend a couple hours in conversation with Brian De Palma, then you’re the kind of person who would enjoy this movie.

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