A Chinese man comes home to his coffin apartment in search of rest he won’t get.
Jiao qu de niao
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DIRECTED BY: Sheng Qiu
FEATURING: Mason Lee, Zihan Gong
PLOT: A team of engineers investigate the sudden appearance of sinkholes which are forcing them to condemn buildings; the story changes to follow a group of suburban elementary schoolers, with parallels developing between the two tales.
Suburban Birds begins slowly, develops slowly, and ends with two men falling asleep. We start off following Han, part of a four man surveying team investigating unstable buildings in a Chinese city. After a while, Han enters an evacuated school and finds a diary. He reads it, and we then begin following the story of a boy—also named Han—and his school chums. They hunt for birds eggs, engage in pre-adolescent flirtation, play war games with toy guns, and eventually trek off on a long journey to find one of their number who didn’t show up to school that day. This section of the film takes up an inconclusive hour in the middle of the film, and is almost entirely realistic. The temptation is to assume that young Han and old Han are the same character at different times of their lives, but the story steadfastly refuses to commit to that interpretation, and in fact several points undermine it. When we return to old Han—seen awakening from a nap—the movie seems less connected to reality than before, although the dissonances are always subtle. Motifs such as haircuts, a riddle, and a stray dog recur in both stories, and it’s possible to draw parallels between Han’s companions in each hemisphere. It ends with a coda that brings in two new characters, out on a birdwatching trip in the same forest where young Han once roamed.
What it all signifies is anyone’s guess; it’s impossible to tease out a moral from the odd story, which never develops a consistent tone or obvious theme. It does features good, if restrained, acting; the children, especially, are a believable ensemble, without a weak link. The cinematography is superior, with intelligent zooms and pans highlighting important characters and spatial relationships. Memorable visuals include a shot of tufts of grass that change color from lavender to red to green, and a dreamlike interlude where the engineers examine “clues” from inside separate plexiglass enclosures, each lit in a different neon lighting scheme. Suburban Birds may be enjoyed by fans of slow, obliquely mystical cinema in the mold ofand the aforementioned Bi Gan, but I found it took far too long in developing its enigmas, which didn’t seem worth the journey.
Suburban Birds got a very limited U.S. release in 2019; a DVD/Blu-ray showed up in 2020, and it can be found for rental on some of the smaller, art-house oriented streaming services.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Qiu shows remarkable facility as he patiently adds layer upon layer to a mystery that wants to stay one. This is not a puzzle film, but its ends are elusive.”–Glenn Kenny, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
For a well-deserved break from reality, instead I spent my Sunday morning enjoying thirteen cartoon shorts from around the world.
“The Spinning Top” – dir. by Shiva Momtahen
An ornately told tale from Iran about an enthusiastic child who ends up trading his ability to sing and shout for a spinning top. The animation is distinctly non-Western, and beautiful. The little boy in question travels within an ever-shifting frame of stylized flowers as he encounters the quilt man, pool man, and the salt man. The up tempo feel is brought down to earth when the salt man takes away the boy’s youthful vigor, leaving only the memories within the top.
“Kkum” – dir. by Kim Kang-min
This is the only foam-imation I’ve ever seen, and accompanying the weird look achieved by animating its weird narrative about a young man who is protected by his mother’s dreams with polystyrene. Four dreams in particular–“Fire,” “Insect,” “Pumpkin,” and “Corpse”–are highlighted, each heavily symbolic and lovingly rendered in Styrofoam. The short ends with the mother advising her son (grown, with wife and child) not to go out that day; the grateful lad thanks the heavens for the meticulous fence his mother has constructed around him.
“There Were Four of Us” – dir. by Cassie Shao
By a whisker, this was the strangest short of the crop—both to listen to, and to look at. The sound is purposely muted, as if one is listening to the dialogue (actually, mostly monologues) through a telephone propped against an old tape recorder. The visual element, however, practically shouts from the screen. What is going on here? There are too many clues, too many things going on, to be certain; the final shot suggests a hospital. And the garbled vocal exposition suggests a mental one, at Continue reading FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: GILES WATCHES CARTOONS
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FEATURING: Jue Huang, Wei Tang
PLOT: A man searches for a woman from his past, who may be nothing but a dream.
COMMENTS: Bi Gan creates shots of intricate logic inside narratives of unfathomable illogic. Technically speaking, Long Day’s Journey into Night (which has nothing to do with Eugene O’Neill’s play) is another feat of long-take virtuosity; think of films like Russian Ark or Birdman (which it approaches, but does not exceed). Scored to Chinese blues and shot on slick neon streets, the film serves up its slow, dreamy story with an intoxicating noirish melancholy.
The first half of Long Journey jumps back and forth in time, and possibly between reality and fantasy. Bi deliberately withholds narrative information: for example, the protagonist, Luo Hongwu, begins describing his search for one “Zuo Hongyuan” before telling us who he is or why he wants to find him. Repeated motifs—karaoke singing, a disreputable old friend named Wildcat, pomelo fruit, a green book, a spinning house—float around, hints of plot that tantalize more than they explain. The result is like the fractured storytelling of Mulholland Drive, but more subdued and dramatic, and with the key to untangling the story (if there is one) buried even deeper inside the labyrinthine narrative. It’s an exercise in how close you can toe the line of incoherence and still have a structure that functions in the same way as a plot.
The second half begins when Luo visits a movie theater to pass time. The line between the film’s two chapters clearly marked when he puts his 3-D glasses on, and the film pops out into its extra dimension. What follows is the most explicitly surreal parts of the film; Luo has drifted off, and meets a boy who may be his never-born son and a woman who just may be the one he has been seeking. The camerawork will astound you.
Long Day’s Journey into Night is the ultra-rare art-house film released to theaters in 3-D (although only the second half is in that format). At home, I watched it in regular old 2-D (although it is available on a 3-D Blu-ray for those few with enhanced players). I doubt I missed out on much. It feels like a little bit of a gimmick; the main justifications are to create a clear dividing point between the movie’s hemispheres, and to make you feel like you are going on a journey with the protagonist. In China, Journey was marketed as a big-deal blockbuster romance and released to theaters on New Year’s Day, China’s preeminent holiday. This counts as a master prank in my book.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
DIRECTED BY: Gan Bi
FEATURING: Yongzhong Chen
PLOT: An elderly doctor returning to his birthplace passes through a strange town.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Kaili Blues is an interesting debut from a poet-turned-filmmaker with a lot of talent. It’s strange, but it lulls you rather than wows you; its weirdness is a tad too restrained, too tasteful.
COMMENTS: Kaili Blues is the kind of film of the type frequently said to “announce a major new talent,” which is somewhat different than dubbing it an “astounding debut film” (although some critics used variations of that line, too). I think the first description is more accurate. Kaili Blues is an interesting, well-constructed film, and I’ll be curious to follow what Gan Bi does in the future. However, this is not a knock-your-socks-off masterpiece; it’s missing a little something, a touch of spice.
Describing Kaili Blues‘ style is relatively simple: it’s likewith less explicit fantasy and more experimental camerawork. The two directors share the same patient pacing, a love of finding the strange amidst the ordinary, and a mystical Buddhist sensibility. Although not much seems to be happening in the first half of Kaili‘s run, story elements are being dropped in conversation, some of which will bear narrative fruit later, and some of which remain inscrutable no matter how often they are repeated. There is a lot to untangle, not all of which can be captured in a single viewing, and some of which will still be obscure after a second run through. Touches like the odd TV broadcasts and reports on “wild man” sightings, scenes with a disco ball, underwater dreams, functional clocks drawn on the wall, and a three-dimensional train that emerges from a wall behind the characters enliven the ordinary narrative about doctor Chen Shen, his criminal past, his crazy brother (literally named “Crazy Face”), and his neglected nephew. At the halfway point things pick up dramatically when Chen sets out on a journey with several goals in mind. As he passes through a town on the way, Gan Bi deploys the film’s major attraction, an impressive forty-minute tracking shot that follows Chen and several of the villagers, winding its way through the riverside town, taking shortcuts through alleyways, and at one point indulging in the rarely seen 180-degree vertical pan. The hamlet itself is full of ambiguous characters who may be ghosts from the past, or the future, but who seem to be connected to Chen and his quest(s).
Unlike Western films, which regard loss of identity as a form of existential crisis, here it describes Buddhist conceptions of the fluidity of souls and the arbitrariness of individual experience. Both the doctor’s nephew and the dead son of a triad he knew in his youth have an unlikely fascination with watches. We’re not expected to believe those two characters are the same (at least, I don’t think we are). Yet at other times individuals who appear in far-flung places are hinted to be the same person at different times in their lives. A quote from the Diamond Sutra explains: “minds… are not minds, but are (expediently) called minds… neither the past, present nor future mind can be found.” The same experiences recur across people and across time. If Kaili Blues confuses you (and it probably will), Gan Bi might respond that that’s because you’re so used to looking at illusions that reality seems like a dream.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Bi’s singular vision bears comparison to those of other geniuses such as Tarkovsky, Sokurov, David Lynch, Luis Buñuel and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Like those auteurs, he achieves what film is best at but seldom accomplishes — a stirring of a deeper consciousness, a glimpse into a reality transcending the everyday.”–Peter Keough, Boston Globe (contemporaneous)
FEATURING: Chao Deng, Show Lo, Yuqi Zhang
PLOT: A wealthy Chinese business tycoon buys prime coastal real estate, but his Capitalist plans will destroy life for a tribe of mermaids (and one mer-octopus) living there. The merfolk dispatch an assassin to disrupt the tycoon’s plans, but they end up in a sappy romance instead.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A stylish and entertaining comedy, yes. It’s good, clean, silly fun, even fit fare to bring the kiddies. But it doesn’t touch the farthest rim of the outside category of the fringe weird movies considered here. A helpful note to future List aspirants: “fantasy” does not automatically equal “weird.”
COMMENTS: From the opening credits over shots of factories belching smoke and marine life drenched in crude oil, we expect right away we’re in for a heavy environmental message. To our relief, we end up in a bargain-basement nature museum and a farcical comedy. Tycoon Liu Xuan acquires Green Gulf, a prime island real estate, to develop. That business venture doesn’t sit well with the local fauna, especially not the kind with both arms and gills.
Shan is a mermaid dispatched by her tribe to stop Xuan’s plans by acting as a siren to lures Xuan to his assassination at the hands of a crack team of merfolk activists. But things run awry when she grows emotionally attached to Xuan, despite her leader describing humans as “pure evil” during an expository history lesson. Xuan gets mushy for Shan, too, so the fate of the merfolk hang with these star-crossed flounders. It’s just as well; as an assassin, Shan’s about as threatening as Mr. Bean. Cue Very Important Environmental/Cultural Sensitivity Message you’ve seen a hundred times in everything from Fern Gully to Pocahontas.
Even though it doesn’t qualify as “weird,” there are some memorable action scenes, top-notch special effects, grand scale slapstick sight gags, and a CGI crew who couldn’t resist inserting a Finding Nemo nod at the end there. Keep an eye out for an amok jetpack, slingshot air corps training, an outrageously over-the-top sushi chef routine, and an elder merfolk shaman with a water-bending magic ability. Stephen Chow is one director who knows how to deliver everything you were expecting, plus ten percent. The last thirty minutes even get dramatic enough to almost take itself seriously, just enough to sell the ending. Rest assured, the environmental message is not dropped with an anvil, but a quick smack from a frying pan.
“Hilarity ensues” is about all there is left to say for the rest of the film. The comedy isn’t even surreal enough to make it intoterritory; this is more like the Chinese Mel Brooks, complete with many classic gags from the farce school of comedy. That being said, it’s a well-done, lavishly produced, fun movie, sure to be a crowd-pleaser—it’s the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time, after all. But “crowd-pleaser” isn’t what a list of weird movies would typically include.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Chick Chick” is an infamously jarring Chinese music video featuring some ridiculous dance routines and sound samples. Don’t worry, there’s no deeper meaning to uncover. The lyrics are comprised of about five words, and the rest are animal noises.