AFF Day Five: Yesterdays

If you've been following along with my festival posts so far, you'll notice that I tend to start off by reminding everyone about my entry from the previous day (on that note, here's Monday!). Sure, it's a convenient bit of web marketing, but I also like to think that reflecting on the past can provide context for the present. It just so happens that the filmmakers I tangled with on the fifth day of the festival seem to agree.

 
She Remembers, He Forgets (Adam Wong)

She Remembers, He Forgets (Adam Wong)

 

The cinema of Hong Kong, historically a unique mix of Eastern and Western influence thanks to their geographical and political position in relation to mainland China, was inarguably changed by the 1997 transfer of the country to Chinese rule. While Adam Wong's Cantonese-language feature She Remembers, He Forgets isn't specifically about "The Return", it presents a bifurcated story of life in Hong Kong before and after sovereignty was handed over from the British. In 1997, Gigi and Shing-wah were high school classmates on the cusp of a budding romance. Present day, they're a married couple struggling for happiness; Gigi is unsatisfied in her career, Shing-wah is inattentive and unfaithful. Cutting back and forth between these two storylines, Wong builds a "what could have been" narrative as we see the young Gigi with her other almost-sweetheart, Bok-man. The parallels to the film industry are intriguing, but the product feels ultimately uneven as it grasps at sentimental threads and tries to build an unsolved mystery angle to the early scenes that never gets off the ground. Even the soundtrack is unfocused, drastically shifting from tinkling pianos to rising strings to kazoos and ukuleles, even beatboxing. It's not a movie to be disdained — some scenes are so stubbornly earnest that you can't help but chuckle — but it takes a certain kind of sweet tooth to be able to stomach the cloying highs with the heftier subtext.

 
Head Space (Nicole Steeves)

Head Space (Nicole Steeves)

 

From macro to micro, Head Space shrinks its introspection to a single man, and that's not the only thing tiny about it. Writer/director Nicole Steeves made the film on a budget of only $1000 as part of the Women in Film and Television's 1KWAVE program. It stars local comedian Struan Sutherland as Floyd, an ex-standup and infomercial star living with severe anxiety that keeps him confined to his home, mentally replaying his past failures. The film flirts with dark comedy while servicing honest and noble ideas about mental health. When Floyd can't successfully commit suicide (he needs to Google how to tie a noose) he turns his efforts to self-care, making "self-help" tapes that are no help at all and attempting yoga in his tiny hallway, a brilliant bit of physical comedy given Sutherland's 6'8" frame. His unlikely bond with his pizza delivery guy is his ultimate salvation, casting the film with a positive message about outreach and support for those who might be struggling around you. Steeves' stretches her constraints for all they're worth, so that even when the seams of the film's construction show the low-fi quirks add intimacy and honesty to Floyd's struggles. Head Space is a testament to creativity, allowing artistic vision and heart to shine through under the most austere conditions. 

 
The Dressmaker (Jocelyn Moorhouse)

The Dressmaker (Jocelyn Moorhouse)

 

The Dressmaker has no such small-scale goals in mind. From it's True Detective-like opening credits that fly us into the dusty town of Dungatar, the film quickly announces its broadly entertaining B-movie intentions. Kate Winslet stars as Tilly Dunnage, an exile who has returned for "revenge" on the coterie of despicable characters that we meet in a whirlwind tour through each building as she pelts them with golf balls from "The Hill" (the town's only), a bandolier of tees at her waist. At first, her plot to corrupt the town is wonderfully vague: armed with a Singer sewing machine, she'll make lavish dresses for the women in hopes that dazzling them will erase her past from their memory. If the film continued on this tack, leaning in to the absurdity and coasting by on the comedic talents of the cast — Judy Davis is a standout as "Mad" Molly, Tilly's lush of a mother — it could have been a joyous, campy romp, albeit a weightless one. Attempts at explaining the inexplicable machinations cause the film to flag in places; the most enjoyable developments are the truly ridiculous curveballs that have no regard for Tilly's history or her supposed "curse". There's plenty to latch onto, though, even if you view it purely as a Kate-Winslet-in-fab-costumes delivery vehicle.

 
The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi)

The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi)

 

You can imagine that a filmmaker who literally made a film called The Past might be heavily invested in how dramatic events can shape the course of a person's life. That's exactly what you can expect from writer and director Asghar Farhadi, who has a innate talent for filtering human folly through a unique lens of Iranian experience. His latest, The Salesman, showcases his trademark escalation of an inciting event, as we watch a teacher and his wife move into a new apartment that soon plays host to a violent intruder. Violated and victimized, Rana (played by a quietly wounded and simmering Taraneh Alidoosti) doesn't want to go to the police, but her husband (Shahab Hosseini, winner of the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance) is not able to let go of his hope for justice. A series of tense and tightly scripted encounters ensue, wrapped around the framing device of a translated production of Arthur Miller's "Death Of A Salesman" starring the two leads. The social commentary echoes loudly, even for those unfamiliar with Iranian culture, and Farhadi's camera is often freer than it has been in previous films, making his movie about a play ironically his least stagy. Complex and wholly empathetic, The Salesman is an engaging and urgent experience.

Looking forward instead of back, tomorrow will cover Danish Oscar submission Land of Mine and the latest from Canada's enfant terrible, Xavier Dolan, among other selections.