Funuke, Show Some Love, You Losers!
Kristin and I think of Brussels as a gray city—gray skies, gray pavements, gray buildings, even gray, if often fashionable, clothes. It isn’t usually a fair description, though. In the twenty-plus summers we have been visiting, many days have been bright. I suppose our impression comes chiefly from one rainy fall we spent here in 1984, on a Fulbright research grant. Still, the public monuments bear us out, especially the Palais de Justice: except for its gold dome, it is gray, and has been encased in gray scaffolding for as long as we can remember.
Indeed, Brusselians assure us that the scaffolding will never go away because it’s holding the Palais up.
The gray motif continues this summer; during my visit, there have been almost no sunny days, just rain and chill. To prove that Belgians have stayed loyal to their favorite color, I took a shot of a new piece of public architecture near the Central Station: a half-circle of tipped-over pyramids that are, ineluctably, gray.
Still, the movies provide my light and color. I talked about Brussels as one of the great film cities in last year’s entry . I found further proof in a 2003 Marc Crunelle’s Histoire des cinemas bruxellois (in a series announced here ), a small book with some fine pictures, one of which you will find at the end of this entry.
As usual , my host was the Royal Film Archive of Belgium. The archive offices remain in their splendid old building, the Hotel Ravenstein, but the new museum complex is still under construction. So the screenings continue to be held in the ex-Shell building, a piece of postwar Europopuluxe that I seem to enjoy more than most of the locals.
During my days, I watch films (very, very slowly) in the archive vaults; more about that project in my next entry. At night the event was Cinédécouvertes , the annual festival of new films that don’t yet have Belgian distribution. That festival, going back decades, has now been attached to a bigger event, the Brussels European Film Festival , which this year began on 28 June. BEFF showed thirty new titles, plus eight older items in open-air screenings, and it gave several prizes.
Kristin and I were in Bologna for Il Cinema Ritrovato  and so I missed all of these, including the big Flemish film of 2007, Ben X. But Cinédécouvertes, running on during the BEFF, had its second and final week while I was in town. Films screened were competing for a 10,000-euro prize to be awarded to a distributor that would pick up the film. In addition, the venerable L’Age d’or prize would be awarded to a film that maintained the spirit of Buñuel’s scandalous masterpiece.
Herewith some notes on what I saw, and the prize results. Of course on the day I posted this, the sun came out.
Women, prep school, and manga
The two Iranian films in the program were earnest but varying in quality. Unfinished Stories (Pourya Azabayjani) is a network narrative following three women across a single night. A suicidal teenager doesn’t return home; her path crosses with that of a wife cast out by her husband; and she in turn brushes past a young woman who tries to smuggle her newborn baby out of the hospital. The situations are engagingly melodramatic, but the links among them (a footloose soldier, a compassionate taxi driver, an enigmatic old man) seemed to me forced, and as is often the case in these tales, the problem is how to conclude each story line in a satisfying way. The use of sound was very fresh, however. I especially liked the teenager’s obsessive replaying of taped conversations with her boyfriend. Often these “auditory flashbacks” are played over a black screen, and they come to exist as discrete, almost virtual scenes.
I like it when a film begins with a sharp, defining gesture, and Three Women (Manijeh Hekmat) had one. In close-up a car drives up to a tollbooth and the driver’s hand tosses a cellphone into a Charity Box there. Someone is on the run and cutting ties, but we won’t find out more for some time.
The first stretch of the movie concentrates on Minoo, a divorced professor and expert in Persian textiles. A rug dealer has promised to keep a precious carpet in the care of her museum, but he changes his mind and tries to sell it. In a fit of temper she grabs the carpet from its owner and takes it to her car, where her somewhat senile mother waits patiently for a trip to the hospital. Then the old lady vanishes. The emphasis shifts to Minoo’s daughter Pegah, who has set out on her own. The maddening Tehran traffic of the early scenes gives way to the empty quiet of the countryside. In the second half of the film, a favorite theme of Iranian cinema—the urban intellectual confronting rural life—is played out vividly when village elders debate whether to stone a woman who has had an abortion.
Like many of the best Iranian films, Three Women tells its story with dramatic force, offering robust conflicts and a degree of suspense rare in arthouse fare. Manijeh Hekmat, who made her name with Women’s Prison, manages the story threads skilfully, creating a continuous revelation of backstory and hints about how the tale will develop. I especially liked the way Minoo gradually realizes that she has had no idea how her daughter is living. As Alissa Simon  points out in her perceptive review, Hekmat can spare time for a subtle composition as well. The ending came as a quiet surprise, deflating some dramatic issues but emphasizing the comparative unimportance of carpets, cellphones, and pop music in the face of the deeper problems facing Iranian women.
Add another woman and you have Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Four Women. The quartet of stories, all adapted from literature and evidently set in the 1940s and 1950s, shows the fates befalling women in different roles, each identified with a title: The Prostitute, the Virgin, the Housewife, and the Spinster. Not much fun to serve in any of them, it turns out. The film has a sharp eye for details of local life and ceremonies, an ambition helped by the high-definition format: a slow-moving river is off-puttingly scummy. A little didactic and schematic, but it’s enlivened by a long sequence of a husband who methodically and endlessly eats everything put in front of him, with a seriousness he cannot bring to his marriage. The sequence starts in bemusement, moves to humor, and persists to the threshold of nausea.
The Argentine La sangre brota (Pablo Fendrik) was a little reminiscent of City of God in its relentless handheld assault on your senses, with the camera grazing faces and people racing in pursuit of drugs and money, with a beleagured taxi driver trying to do the right thing. La maison jaune (Amor Hakkar), from Algeria, appealed more to me. How much we owe neorealism! Quietly and simply, Hakkar tells of a father learning of his son’s death, fetching the body home for burial, and then trying to find a way to relieve his wife’s grief. So he paints his house yellow. Quiet and moving and not as simple, in story or pictorial technique, as it might sound.
Antonio Campos’ Afterschool (US) is a very assured first feature about drug-overdose deaths in a prep school. The story is told almost completely through the consciousness of Rob, an introspective and awkward freshman who indulges in internet porn. Passive to the point of inertia, Rob remains largely a mystery. This effect is often due to Campos’ bold use of the 2.40 widescreen frame, which often excludes some of the most important dramatic information. People are split by the left or right edge, or are decapitated by the top frameline, so we must strain to listen to the conversation and catch glimpses of the characters. This may sound arbitrary, but Campos finds ways to motivate the lopped-off compositions. One shot, when the parents of dead students record their thoughts on video, is one of the strongest pieces of staging I’ve seen this year. Unlikely to get U. S. theatrical release, if only because of its pacing, Afterschool marks Campos as definitely a director to watch. It won one of the two top Cinédécouvertes prizes.
The other top prizewinner was Yoshida Daihachi’s Funuke, Show Some Love, You Losers! It’s another insane Japanese family movie—that is, the family is insane, and the movie acts the same way, out of sympathy or contagion. After the parents are killed trying to save a cat from an oncoming truck (nice overhead shot of bloody skid marks), a new household takes shape. There’s the phlegmatic brother Shinji, his maniacally cheerful wife, his adolescent sister Kyomi, and his sister Sumika, who comes to stay after failing to make it in Tokyo as an actress. Family secrets emerge. Sumika starts turning tricks and Kyomi draws violent manga inspired by Sumika’s adventures. The comedy turns blacker when Kyomi’s comic books become best-sellers and all the family problems regale the reading public. With some scenes shot in high-contrast video, as if they were TV episodes, and a climax that blends film and manga, panel by panel, the film’s style is as all over the map as the characters and their complexes. Good dirty fun from the title onward.
The L’Age d’or prize went, deservedly, to Cargo 200 from Russia. Another black comedy, but one that gets blacker and less funny as it goes along, it becomes sort of a post-Glasnost’ Last House on the Left. (Seriously, maybe there’s an influence of Saw and Hostel here, with hints of Faulkner’s Sanctuary.) Set in 1984 and stuffed with retro clothes, hairstyles, and music, the plot spins crazy-eights around the corpse of a returning Afghan war hero; a teenager trying to buy homebrew vodka; a bootlegger who keeps a Vietnamese refugee as an assistant; a small-town policeman with a penchant for voyeuristic sex; and a professor of dialectical materialism who wanders, blinking, in and out of the lurid plot twists. Director Alexei Balabanov, who did the pioneering rough genre picture Brother (1997), gives no quarter here.
Strength in simplicity
Albert Serra directs the three kings in El cant dels ocells.
My three favorites were all resolutely unfancy. Shultes, a Russian item by Bakur Bakuradze, is a minimalist study of a pickpocket. Shultes lives with his mother, gives some of his loot to his legit brother, and takes up with a boy whom he tutors in thievery. At slightly over 200 shots, the movie is staged, shot, and cut with a precision that reminded me of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Syndromes and a Century). On the inexpressiveness scale, Shultes, with eyes and mouth too small to fill up much of his face, makes Bresson’s pickpocket look positively other-directed.
As with all movies about stealing, the pleasure lies in trying to figure out the plan and spot the telltale moves—sort of like the misdirection of a magic act. Here the drama is cunningly contrived. What is Shultes writing in his little brown book? Who is Vasya? What’s his big plan? The plot jumps a level when we realize that all we’ve seen is a flashback, and the ensuing conversation puts things in a startling perspective. Our blankly amoral protagonist even becomes a shade sympathetic. Too rigorous and unemphatic to be an arthouse import, I fear, but ideal for a festival.
Shinji Aoyama is best known for Eureka (2000), which won a prize at an earlier Cinédécouvertes. Sad Vacation is one of those films that try to do justice to the ways in which humans become tangled in relationships based on acquaintance, momentary bits of kindness, and sheer chance. Kenji helps smuggle Chinese workers into Japan, but when one dies, Kenji takes the orphan boy under his wing. Soon characters and connections proliferate. There is the salariman and his dumb pal searching for the runaway Kozue. Kenji cares for a slightly daft girl, and he becomes romantically involved with the bargirl Saeko. Accidentally he finds the mother who deserted him, and he joins her new family, complete with mild-mannered father and rebellious brother. Always hovering around are several men and women who work for the father’s trucking company—people rescued, it’s implied, from crime or neglect.
Aoyama manages the crisscrossing relationships delicately, without losing sight of the fact that behind Kenji’s laid-back appearance is a boiling desire to avenge himself on his mother. But she’s his match. A woman of smiling serenity, or smugness, she seems infinitely resilient. The final confrontation of the two, in a prison visiting room, has the giddy sense of one-upmanship of the prison visit in Secret Sunshine. Things turn grim and bleak, yet Sad Vacation manages to feel optimistic without being sentimental; even a flagrantly unrealistic soap bubble at the close seems perfectly in place. I notice that Aoyama has made nearly a film a year since Eureka; why aren’t we (by which I mean, I) seeing them?
Some films, like those of Angelopoulos, seem to spit in the face of video. You can’t say you’ve seen them if you haven’t seen them on the big screen. Such was the case with my favorite of the films, The Song of the Birds (El cant dels ocells, 2008) by the Catalan director Albert Serra. It merges an aesthetic out of Straub/ Huillet—black and white, very long static takes, drifts and wisps of action—with a joyous naivete recalling Rossellini’s Little Flowers of St. Francis. Serra’s film also reminded me of Alain Cuny’s L’Annonce fait à Marie (1991) and one of the greatest of biblical films, From the Manger to the Cross (1912). All make modest simplicity their supreme concern.
We three kings of Orient are . . . well, definitely not riding on camels. We are in fact trudging through all kinds of terrain, scrub forests and watery plains and endless desert, to visit the baby Jesus. We are also quarreling about what direction to go, whether to turn back, and why we have to sleep side by side so tightly that our arms go numb. And in an eight-minute take we are struggling up a sand dune, vanishing down the other side, and then staggering up again in the distance.
The three kings aren’t characterized, and they are sometimes unidentifiable in the long-shot framings; only their body contours help pick them out. Intercut with their non-misadventures are glimpses of an angel (whom they may not see) and stretches featuring Joseph and Mary, who caress a lamb. Eventually the infant Himself puts in an appearance, burbling. When the kings finally arrive, one prostrates himself. The image settles into a tidy, unpretentious classical composition and we hear the film’s first burst of music, Pablo Casals’ cello rendering of the folk tune Song of the Birds.
The kings get a chance to bathe in a scummy pool before returning home. Off they trudge. “We’re like slaves!” one complains. In a final shot that would be sheer murk on a DVD, they swap robes and set off in different directions. Did I see them embrace one another? Did they murmur something? I couldn’t tell for sure. Night was falling and they were far away.
Like Casals’ cantata El Pessebre, The Song of the Birds gives us a Catalan nativity. The simplicity is genuine, not faux-naif, and the humility doesn’t preclude humor. Although the shots are quite complex, the spare surface texture invests a familiar story with a plain, shining dignity. Discovering films like this, which you will never see in a theatre and could not bear to watch on video, makes this ambitious festival such a worthy event. It maintains the heritage of one of the world’s great cinema cities.
Next up: A report on films I’m watching at the archive’s vaults on–no kidding–the Rue Gray.
The Metropole, Brussels, 1932.
Thanks to Jean-Paul Dorchain of the Archive for help in finding illustrations. And apologies to readers who came here and found only a stub earlier. An internet gremlin somehow purged the first version of this entry a few hours after it was posted.