James Vaughan and Jeremy Elphick speak to the Head Programmer for Australia’s Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival, Kiki Fung about the month of contemporary cinema she has guest curated for the Museum in December.
Indeed! The festival went very well this year. After 3 editions, I’d hope to think that we have defined our program direction – a program that is dedicated to unique voices, cinematic visions and cultural diversity (or may I say, narrative diversity). We are honoured to showcase many films from the Asia Pacific region that reflect their countries’ cultural identity and artistic expression. There is still so much more to explore, cinematically, from this region. We anticipate to see many more that counter mainstream filmmaking and that will take us very far, imaginatively and spiritually.
It is hard to single out just a few films that changed the way I think of cinema but there are indeed some that left very strong impression. For example, J.P. Sniadecki’s Iron Ministry (2013), one of the films from the Harvard Sensory Ethnographical Lab, shot entirely on a number of trains in China, is a very good example of where interesting contemporary cinema could head towards. It is at once hypnotic, experiential, but also socially and politically revelatory. It is something beyond documentary; it is visual poetry that is closely grounded in reality but also incredibly dreamlike. I would love to see more of this kind of films. Likewise, in this year Midi Z’s City of Jade opens new dimension of documentary filmmaking, transforming a record of his brother’s jade-minding venture into a deep, personal exploration of obsession.
Both Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin (2015) are triumph of form and their new rendition of the martial arts genre excited me as to what cinema is and can be. These two films proved that it is possible for martial art films to be artistic, romantic, and philosophical (I think both films embraced and elaborated on Taoist philosophy in their spirit). Of course, the process of re-inventing the genre started from King Hu. The Assassin is at once classical (referencing the beauty and aesthetic of classical Chinese poetry) and modern (in its elliptical narrative and its resistance to define or explain, in its moments of psychological depth).
Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart (2015) received mixed responses from critics and audience, but his cinema is consistently articulate and precise, and I responded very strongly to this film. I am fascinated by the originality and creativity in many Chinese independent films, however very few contemporary Chinese filmmakers (post the Fifth Generation) are able to address China’s current social condition and its people’s spiritual and emotional state as concisely and daringly (but not sensationally or over-radically) as Jia. Many symbols and gestures in this film (including its use of pop music) speak to the collective memory, pain and loss of the Chinese people. Above the emotional impact, it is also full of cinematic beauty.
And Alain Resnais. The 50s and 60s were the era of intellectuals; filmmakers were often theatre lovers if not actively involved in it, hence, it was very natural for them to contemplate on the relation between these two art forms. As the form of cinema progresses, filmmakers’ concerns shift, and audience’s taste are more and more likely to be shaped by advertising campaigns and mass media. There may not be as many works with such erudition in our time, but films that deal with the magical power of fictionalisaton and representation will continue to evolve, because the pursuit of reality is also a big part of life. Both theatre and cinema strive to intensify our understanding of life and make sense of our world, I don’t see this being replaced in the near future by any other form of representation, even when new narrative forms (such as new media art, interactive story-telling and Virtual Reality) emerge. There is something sacred about pure cinema and its interaction or flirtation with reality. Recently, José Luis Guerín’s The Academy of Muses (2015) is a fascinating experiment.
This could develop into a very long essay! I may attempt to make a few notes…
Above all, as written in my notes, Rivette’s cinema addresses the nature of cinema itself. This will make his cinema forever young, stimulating and relevant.
Rivette’s sense of time is exceptional. Other than the theatre, he must have seen a certain power in time and the depiction of time. This doesn’t only refer to the duration of many of his films, but also his preference of real-time shooting. How do you capture time? Probably only through space, the movement or suspension in space. His method of real-time shooting locks audience in; as we are drawn to be fixated on his characters’ actions, movements or their stagnant state, we eventually identify with that obsession or breakdown, we become one with what’s on screen (I am thinking of how Bulle Ogier repeatedly records messages in the tape machine in L’amour Fou, 1969). It was almost like a process of being possessed! In some cases, I do feel that Rivette’s cinema is one of initiation, of enticing audience into another state but also into another form of appreciation. His persistence in going into details of life, of showing life as it is, and sometimes going into digression just as life is, is signatory. Take Joan the Maiden (Part 1 & Part 2, 1994) for example, his version of Joan d’Arc is the most realistic and down to earth among all others. Rather than portraying Joan as a Saint, an idol or a myth like Dryer or Bresson, he was interested in the rich details of life around this humanized, sacred spirit. It is profoundly moving.
Rivette’s cinema follows no conventions or rules, it has a lot to do with existence, but not in a heavily theoretical or meditative manner. Much like Rohmer, he embraced the playful, adventurous nature of life and took joy in letting go, in allowing his characters map out their adventure. In Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) and Le Pont du Nord (1981), he indulged his girls to turn the city of Paris into a playground or the base of a board game. If these two films demonstrated Rivetter’s celebration of the feminine spirit and its ability to invent, Secret Defense (1998), much less a playful film, maintains the central idea of chasing, finding and pursuing, whilst in this case the feminine’s power lies in uncovering/discovering. There is something very revolting in Rivette, when he subverts the patriarchal values of order and logic.
Both Out 1 (1971) and L’amour Fou deal extensively with theatre and the process of artistic creation which is timeless; the collapse of the artists reflect how Rivette was acutely in tune with the anxiety experienced by thinking men in modern time. Though his later films, namely La belle Noiseuse (1991), The Story of Marie and Julien (2003) and Around a Small Mountain (2009), are less about theatre, they are nonetheless powerful explorations of creation and obsession – something very central in his oeuvre.
And yet, on the other hand, his treatment of classic text is equally fascinating. In The Nun (1966), Wuthering Heights (1985) and Don’t Touch the Axe (2007), his preoccupation with the “madness” aspects of these stories and the psychological state of his characters distinguish him from any kind of conventional literary adaptations.
It is probably becoming more collaborative and diversified, with co-productions being the new model of filmmaking or financing – be it pan-European, pan-Asian, European-Asian, or American-Asian. It is interesting that many European producers and financiers are taking a keen interest in filmmakers from the Asia Pacific, with some championing smaller scale, independent works, so I am hopeful for the future. For foreign productions that aspire to break into the Asian market, they are going to have to work collaboratively with writers and directors who are able to offer stories that resonate with domestic audience. These new collaborative models will result in a process of merging, shifting and negotiating, I do hope that individual voices will not become marginalized or compromised.
It would either be Eric Rohmer or Mikio Naurse, depending on which part of me that was to be portrayed. It is a bit egotistic to think about who would play me, but if I have to answer this question, it might be… Jean Seberg.
Interview conducted by James Vaughan and Jeremy Elphick.
Saturday 10 December, 2pm: The Romance of Astrea and Celadon
Saturday 17 December, 2pm: Around a Small Mountain
Saturday 24 December, 2pm: 21 Nights with Patti