Uzak – Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2002)

One of the three films I recently bought with the support of my patrons is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak, a film from 2002 and, even though not his first film, possibly the first well-known film of the Turkish director from Istanbul. It’s my third film by the director. After I had seen his latest film Winter Sleep, I really wanted to see more. I was curious to see the director’s development over almost two decades of filmmaking. Uzak was the beginning of my starting to watch Ceylan’s films chronologically. Let’s see what I will find!

The story of Uzak is quickly told: Yusuf, a rather uneducated factory worker, travels to Istanbul to stay with his cousin Mahmut while looking for a job as a sailor. Things are not going to plan, however, and Yusuf prefers following a woman around the city rather than look for a job. He lacks motivation but so does Mahmut. The two couldn’t be more different, more distant. I return to the meaning of distance further below, because it is multi-layered and speaks volumes.

As is the case in Winter Sleep, Ceylan’s 2014 film about the divide between rich and poor, and an investigation of power, Ceylan’s outdoor shots in Uzak are gorgeous. In Uzak, the director plays with different lenses, similar to Alexandr Sokurov (Mother and SonFaust). Ceylan doesn’t go as far as using mirrors, however. Rather, he uses painted lenses (or maybe even broken lenses?). In one scene, the top half of the frame is tainted in a very slight brownish colour, something that visualises the weight felt by Mahmut and Yusuf. It’s also a weight that comes from nature; the heavy, endless snow weighs down on the trees. The film feel claustrophobic throughout the 100 odd minutes with the exception of an outdoor scene in Anatolia. There doesn’t seem to be breathing space, neither for us nor the characters. Ceylan’s experimentation with lenses work well here because they reinforce this idea of claustrophobia, of weight, of heaviness, precisely because Ceylan positions the extra layer of light brown at the top of the frame.

In my head, I returned time and again to Winter Sleep, noticing the similarities Ceylan has kept up over the years. The use of snow is only one of many things. Ceylan uses it effectively to create an atmosphere of both peace and beauty, and of subtle, but boiling tension between his characters. Yusuf and Mahmut are different in everything they do…and stand for. Yusuf is a rather uneducated character, poor, aimless, without much motivation. Mahmut has worked his way up to become a renowned photographer in Istanbul. He has climbed the social ladder but now he no more than pretends to belong there. For him, “photography is dead.” He attempts to behave according to his position in society, but does so without motivation or aim. He simply aims not to lose face. It is for this reason that one evening he puts on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It’s supposed to be for intellectuals, so he pretends to be interested but switches to a porn VHS as soon as Yusuf has gone to bed. In the end, the two characters are not as different as they might look like at the beginning of the film. In their heart, they are the same. They are only different because Mahmut plays a role that doesn’t seem to suit him. It is like a heavy coat that he cannot take off.

Ceylan contrasts rich and poor, educated an uneducated. But the quest for love remains the same for both characters. Both Yusuf and Mahmut long for love, the latter presumably still in love with his ex-wife who leaves for Canada with her new husband. The former sees a young woman in the streets when he arrives at Mahmut’s place, but whenever he is close to her or wants to approach her, something or someone comes between them. Unfulfilled love – a current that is running under the main storyline and unites the characters that seem so different. It is also here that the theme of “distant” and “distance” comes into effect. Ceylan creates several distances in his film. There is the distance between the two male characters and women. There is something they’re outside of. They cannot get into this world of love, of emotional bonds. It’s something that happens around them, as we see in one scene in which Mahmut sits in a restaurant by himself, having had dinner. A couple arrives. He knows her, she keeps awkwardly looking over to his table without trying to raise the suspicion of her partner. Mahmut leaves, avoiding the situation, putting a distance between it and the situation. Happiness with a woman – that happens elsewhere.

There is a distance between Ceylan’s two protagonists, as I have mentioned. There is also the distance between social classes that often cannot be overcome. Mahmut has alienated, distanced himself from photography, arguing time and again that photography is dead. Ceylan creates several forms of distance, all of which (apart from Yusuf having left his home) are an expression of his characters alienating themselves from their outside world. They close up, they detach themselves from what is happening around them, while at the same time longing for being a part of something, for joining. Uzak is essentially a film about growing isolation and solitude; it is about an often self-inflicted distance the reasons of which aren’t explained in the film. Indeed, this is one of the trademarks of Ceylan’s films: things are the way they are. The director doesn’t try to explain them, he simply shows them.

I’m not sure whether I can agree to the general opinion that Uzak is Ceylan’s best film. It is a good film, beautifully shot, and intelligent. But I would not (yet) go as far as declaring it his best work. I need to see the rest of his films first before I can judge this properly. I loved Winter Sleep but haven’t so far been able to put it into the context of the director’s full filmography. We will see!!

Where are you going? – Zhengfan Yang (2016)

If the film’s title were a question about the direction of the filmmaker, then I would respond to it with “higher and higher”. Where Are You Going? is Zhengfan Yang’s second feature film. His Distant was a true marvel to watch and his second one is even stronger. Visually, it is very different from Distant but narrative-wise I would say it is stronger, cleverly constructed and even though you’re driving through Hong Kong for over two hours, your attention will not wane precisely because Zhengfan uses the frustration principle for the creation of revelatory moments, which make you want to watch more.

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 08.53.38.png

Where Are You Going? is an apt title for a film, which puts you in the seat of a taxi, or a bus, or anything on four wheels that takes you from A to B. The standard first question a taxi driver asks you becomes a metaphor in Zhengfan’s film, though. The film is not only divided into several car journeys across Hong Kong. I found that, more than anything, the question was metaphorical for where the characters (want to) go in their lives. Who are they? Zhengfan doesn’t show them. Sometimes we’re not even sure whether there is someone with us in the car which is travelling through the night or through the busy streets of Hong Kong under the sizzling sun. Their voices are the protagonists. The characters become a face only through their voices, and those voices create not only a personality but an entire life of that personality in front of your eyes. You cannot see the character, but you get to know him/her in an astonishingly detailed way.

Every character has a story to tell but only reveals pain, frustration, anger and sorrow slowly and gradually over the course of a long-take. The viewer gets a glimpse of Hong Kong society through the eyes of people from very different backgrounds and social status. There is the young female banker, who is confronted by her taxi driver over her alleged false promises to her customers that they would make lots of money by investing in risky bonds. He himself was cheated out of 2 million HKD by someone like her, he says. While this could be a straightforward black-and-white story, Zhengfan portrays a banker who pursues the job she doesn’t like only to pay her bills, earning, in effect, less than than the taxi driver and being under persistent pressure by her boss to sell bonds. If she fails to sell a certain amount, she’d get fired.

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 12.44.09.png

We get to know a mainland Chinese couple who wanted to leave the mainland behind in order to search for a better life. A very impressive dialogue between husband and wife, a dialogue that speaks of homesickness and the frustration of discrimination in Hong Kong. While she has enough of trying to get on her feet in the big city (going as far as saying that her “better life” means that she reaches the wall when she stretches her arm out, implying they’re living in a tiny apartment), he is willing to sit this out for another two years, after which they would get a permanent residence permit. She’s dreaming of Canada or Australia; he worries that their parents will consider them a failure if hey returned to mainland China. Pressure from all sides – this is a common theme in pretty much all conversations we hear in the film, be it pressure in family, in society, amongst friends; it’s everywhere.

And while the voices in the background speak of saving money, hating the city, childhood memories, or being set up with a man from mainland China, the images take us through Hong Kong. Zhengfan makes sure to give us as elaborate an image of the city as possible. There’s one chapter, whose name I cannot remember now. I can only remember that it contains the word “corridor” and it was so fitting. A rather narrow motorway leads us through run-down houses, houses in desperate need of repair, houses you wouldn’t want to live in, but which at the same time are most likely the most affordable housing there is in Hong Kong. So while you have the motorway so close to your window that you can almost touch the cars, you have the neighbouring tower just as close. It’s a take that gives you a real feeling of the claustrophobia in the city. At the same time, you see at the horizon all those skyscrapers that we know of Hong Kong; the offices, the expensive apartments, the stuff only rich foreigners can afford.

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 13.46.48.png

Where Are You Going? tells much, much more, and if you’re really attentive, you can see certain connections between the characters. Not all of them are unrelated. Zhengfan has added some connections in there, which makes the entire journey through Hong Kong city, its society and its people even more enriching. The idea of spending over two hours in a car driving through the city is perhaps not very appealing. But the concept is fascinating and riveting in a special way. You see nothing but the streets and other cars, and yet the film is full of humanity, of emotion. You may find this an odd thing to say, but Where Are You Going? is a film which makes you see if you open your ears.

P.S.: Very attentive viewers may find a place where Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker went!

Interview with Zhengfan Yang (Distant)

Before I go ahead with more blog posts on the relation of Slow Cinema and Chinese painting, here’s a brief email interview with director Zhengfan Yang, director of Distant. I have posted a comment on the film a while ago and he was kind enough to answer a few brief questions for me.

Why “Distant”? The title of your film appears to comment on the aesthetics of the film. But there also seems to be more. 
The aesthetics of the film refers to the the wide shots, the long takes and the way I connected the audience with the film, all these are about “distance”. And it’s also about the subjects, each long take contains a small story about distance.
The characters in your film are a mystery to the viewer, because you refrain from employing close-ups, which could show their facial expressions or their body language. Why do you refuse the viewer access to the characters?

On one hand, the film is not about the characters but the distance between characters. I was trying to show the distance between the characters and even the distance between the audience and the characters, so it’s ridiculous to give close-ups to bring the audience and the characters closer. It’s not about how to let the audience to understand the characters but how NOT to. All I wanna do is to avoid the audience to understand them. We are strangers and strangers. That’s our situation today.
On the other hand, for me, the atmosphere of a film is more important than the characters. I denied the viewer access to both the characters and the story. I deliberately cut off the connections between all these 13 shots, I mean, I could have built up many connection between all these stories and leave some more imagination to the audience. They might think, “oh here’s the police I saw in the hospital scene”, but I didn’t. There will be no distance if they are connected.
For me, each long-take was a film on its own. 

Yes. As I said, I disconnected the 13 sections, so naturally each long take can be one on its own. And the story in each long take is a fragment I collected from the reality, from what I have heard, or from my own experience or imagination. I kept them as fragments as they were at the very beginning instead of developing into a whole full story, with built-up, climax and conclusion.
 Is “Distant” an active engagement with the canon of Slow Cinema?
I am not sure, to be honest with you. But by slowing the film, it allows more sense of time to come from the image and sound, and allows more observation on the space too. Most of the time we see only actions or dialogue in a shot, because many filmmakers just don’t work on time and space and so when the action is done, they have to cut it away. But there’s also time and space. I am creating a world on the screen with the time and space, using the image and the sound, and I want to introduce the audience to feel them.
Do you see yourself as a slow-film director?
Same, I am not sure, I don’t want to define myself as a certain kind of filmmaker, although it is true that the film I made is slow because it is dealing with a certain kind of subject, and the time and space, which I concern as the most important issue for me in cinema. Actually I believe that we are all dealing with time and space, but it doesn’t means that “slow” is the only way to do so.
What is your background? When did you start making films?
I have a bachelor in law but I spent most of my time watching films in that four years. Then, I started making short films around 2007 after I finished my study in law school. I was taught by a film professor, Zhou Chuanji, in a one-on-one film course for one year. After that I went to Hong Kong for a Master of Fine Art program in film production. I just graduated last year and Distant is my first feature film.
Are there any specific directors, writers, philosophers or general artists who have influenced your work or from whom you take your inspiration?
Well, Michelangelo Antonioni inspired me by his way of exploring the space in a film while I see how time has been captured and sculptured  in Tarkovsky’s film. For contemporary cinema, I consider Lav Diaz as one of the greatest filmmakers, together with Apichatpong. Both of them are shaping the future of cinema. But when it comes to something about influence, I believe I was influenced a lot by Tsai Ming-Liang, mostly the image, the sound, and the ambience he shaped in his films…
 Are you working on a new project?
Yes, I am going to premiere a documentary, Out Of Focus, in Cinema du Reel (France) at the end of March. The documentary is directed by Shengze Zhu, producer and cinematographer of Distant. I worked as producer, cinematographer and editor in this documentary.
I also have several projects and some interesing ideas that I want to make, but it’s getting more and more difficult to get funding for films. Most people want good stories instead of good films.

Literally Distant

Sometimes you only have to be patient. Patience is a virtue, and without patience you can’t endure a slow film. Or waiting for a slow film, for that matter. I was therefore chuffed when I got the chance to see Zhengfan Yang’s Distant a lot sooner than I had expected.

The film consists of 13 takes, spread over 88 minutes. It consist of 13 different scenes in 13 different settings. In a way, I find, they tell 13 different (small) stories, but they are stories that are nevertheless somehow connected. You can feel it, though you cannot be entirely sure because you cannot see everything.

Distant, Zhengfan Yang

Distant takes the characteristics of Slow Cinema very literal and makes them explicit, but actually so explicit that I only realised how all the features came together at the end of the film. A clever tactic, and an entirely new challenge for me as a viewer. I’m very used to see the same characteristics over and over again. It’s lovely to see something in a different context.

Anyway, the title of the film is key to the entire film, and builds up on what I mentioned previously: the absence of intimacy between film and viewer, between character and viewer, and also between the director and the characters.

In some ways, Distant can be frustrating to watch if you are a viewer who wants to see everything. All scenes are shot in extreme long shots. The surroundings (of man) are more prominent, i.e. take a greater part of the frame, than the actual characters. Whether we are at a beach, where we can see a man playing with his dog, or whether we are at a bus station, where people wait for the next bus – we have no access to them.

The little gestures they make have to be guessed if one really wants to know what they’re up to. Facial expressions are even less visible than in other slow films I know (the complete opposite to Tsai Ming-liang’s Visage). The film teaches you to give up on the usual longing for seeing everything, more so than other slow films. The surroundings, and therefore the relationship between the characters and their habitat, are the feature to look out for and to study in more detail. In classical (narrative) cinema, films are human-centred. Distant is a great example that Slow Cinema, while following human subjects, moves beyond this, and puts human subjects into their social, political, and geographical context – literally. It puts into perspective that humans shape their surroundings, and vice versa. Especially the latter plays an important role in Slow Cinema.

Distant, Zhengfan Yang

Distant has an additional layer to all this. It is not only about the viewer and the director being distant from the characters, achieved by long shots. The characters are also distant to one another, which again, symbolises what I have established earlier: loneliness amongst characters is one of the many key features of Slow Cinema, and Yang’s film makes it very explicit.

All characters are alone. They do not seem to be with anybody. In one scene, there is a newly-wed couple, but the bride seems to be unhappy. She walks into nothingness, then she returns, walks closer to the camera. She then drops her flowers onto the ground, and walks off towards the horizon. She distances herself from the guests, from the photographer, and most importantly, from her husband, who all continue to celebrate.

An old man (who strongly reminded me of Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker in some ways, especially when he began to walk in a subway tunnel, whose framing brings Tsai’s compositions to mind) collapses on the pavement. No one helps him. People walk past. Cars drive past. There is no sign of compassion, or a willingness to help. As with all other characters, he is on his own. And he possibly dies on his own.

What I couldn’t quite make out was the reason for using predominantly male characters. This reminded me somewhat of Japan, where women and men grow apart from each other more and more. Loneliness seems to prevail over intimacy. I know that Japan isn’t China, but I couldn’t help the association. There’s too much loneliness in the world! (Perhaps SC is an advocate for turning this around…or maybe I’m wrong, and read too much into it, which is the more obvious possibility.)