The Red Turtle – Michaël Dudok de Wit (2016)

I believe this is the first animation film that I’m mentioning on this blog. I haven’t heard a lot about slow animation before, nor am I really a fan of animation. But it’s different with Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle. One could easily argue that the film doesn’t fit the Slow Cinema categories I have established on this site in the last five years. That was my very first thought, too, when the film had started. A lot of movement, comparatively quick cuts – there was something that made me wonder why some people have described this film as being slow or contemplative in the past. Just over an hour later, I agreed with those people and it is, funnily enough, the aspect of movement that, in parts, contributed to my change in thinking.

On the surface, The Red Turtle does not take its time with anything. In effect, the film tells the story of life in under seventy minutes. A man is caught up in a storm, is stranded on an island, tries to escape but a red turtle prevents him from doing so. In subsequent scenes, he falls in love, has a son, the son grows up pretty fast, leaves the island and he himself dies. So basically, it’s the natural circle of life told in a short time frame. In case you’ve been following my work for a long time, you probably know that I would always advocate for length in order to allow for an in-depth depiction of whatever is on screen. For The Red Turtle, this is slightly different and even though the sudden speed with which the story developed was startling at times, the film didn’t lose any of its smoothness.

And this is the key of the film that makes it so wonderfully slow and contemplative: its smoothness, its beauty. The Red Turtle is a magnificent, poetic piece that, despite looking like a speedy story-telling rollercoaster on the surface, takes its time. This sounds contradictory, I agree. And yet, apart from one sequence towards the end of the film, all scenes give the impression that life moves slowly, that it progresses in its own time. I mentioned the aspect of movement before. Especially character movement is not necessarily a major thing in traditional Slow Cinema. It’s there, but it’s limited. What struck me in The Red Turtle is the perfectly smooth, sort of zen movements. The film’s characters swim a lot, for example, and they do it, in parts, to enjoy the very act of swimming, to swim with turtles and imitate their slow and graceful movements, to become one with the still sea that surrounds them (up to a point, one should say).

Then there is the aspect of isolation and loneliness. The story is focused, first of all, on a single man only. He looks for food and for drinking water. He builds a raft in order to escape, but there is only so much you can do on your own on an island. So what the film does show is limited, is repetitive, is the daily survival of a man stranded in the middle of nowhere on an unnamed island. Curiously, once he gave up trying to escape, the film becomes very peaceful. It was his anger that gave the impression of a speedy story development, his rage against natural forces. But after that there is a real shift in tone in the film that, once established, made me sink into my seat and observe the images. I didn’t actually watch the film, I observed it. I wasn’t even distracted by the music. On the contrary, they helped me to feel the sort of isolated, limited life which, at the same time, is a life of complete freedom.

There is something mystic, something metaphorical about The Red Turtle. I felt that the film spoke about a million things, and yet only about one essential thing: life. In some ways, just like with major slow films spoken about on this blog in the past, the film’s utter simplicity, also in its drawing, highlights the beauty of it; of the film itself, of the story, of nature. I often thought about Chinese painting (I can’t let it go!), and was reminded of how often slow films focus on nature. Crucially, there is no dialogue in the film. Thoughts and feelings are expressed by actions only. Body language is the centre of the film, and aligns itself, once more, with other, more known and popular slow films. So maybe you begin to see the contradictory nature of The Red Turtle. Nevertheless, or maybe despite this, this animation film deserves being on this blog. It’s an interesting hybrid that made me rethink the framework I have established for myself. At the same time, it fits almost perfectly, and I’m absolutely delighted that it’s this film that has become the first animation mentioned on this blog. The year starts off well…

Bitter Money – Wang Bing (2016)

I don’t know whether it’s only my perception of it or whether there is indeed a real surge of interest in the films of Wang Bing here in Europe. It is strangely satisfying to see an advertisement in your daily newspaper for the director’s Ta’ang on DVD, followed by the announcement of this year’s dOCUMENTA (Kassel, Germany) that they will host a full retrospective of Wang Bing. And then I browsed aimlessly through the website of French-German TV channel ARTE and what did I find? The director’s new film Bitter Money.

As, for instance, West of the TracksBitter Money is an impassioned look at the life of workers in China. To see these two films almost side by side is a very interesting matter. Tie Xi Qu as well as Coal Money are about (quite literally) the dirty work: extracting coal, manufacturing metal sheets and electric cables in factories that are below any health and safety standard. Especially West of the Tracks, to me, showed the older generation. There were several men in their late forties, early fifties who hoped that their children would have a better future. In some ways, Bitter Money seems like an investigation into whether this hope has materialised.

What Wang Bing’s film shows first of all is the shift in China’s economy. Bitter Money is a film about China’s textile industry with a particular emphasis on small private sewing rooms. The director does not explore the conditions in the main clothing factories, but focuses instead on the many private sewing room owners and those who work for them. As is common practice with Wang Bing, he singles out a few workers and follows them throughout the film’s two-and-a-half hours running time. It starts in a claustrophobic room in which several young people sit together. It appears to be one of the girl’s last evening at home, as she is taken to the city for work. Wang Bing keeps all of this anonymous. I’m not sure whether he ever mentions the name of the teenage girl, or whether he wants her to stand in, anonymously, for all the other young people who migrate away from the Chinese countryside in order to look for work.

The girl previously said that she had changed her age on official papers, which seems to be doable in some parts of China but not in others. It’s likely that she did this in order to be considered as eligible for work. Situations are dire in the countryside and people do whatever it takes in order to earn money. The girl is making her way to the city first by bus, then by train. Wang Bing remains for a very long time in this train, a night train it seems, filming the people sleeping, exhausted from the previous part of their journey. Others play cards, but overall it’s quiet in the train. It startled me when the people arrived in the city (which is also kept anonymous, if I remember correctly) and the sound level increased immensely. You get a real sense of the bustling life in the city; the people, the cars, the honking, the sheer speed with which everything is happening.

Initially, Wang Bing follows a group of three young people, amongst them the teenage girl and her cousin. He stays with them for a little while, while they move into their new home – an austere room with only the very basics with the busy street right outside the window (“This is what it’s like when you work far from home”, one of them says) – before he shifts his focus away from them. The story of the teenage girl who changed her age to make it to the city for work merges with the story of a thirty-something woman who fled her abusive husband. I believe that this man, whom we later see hitting his wife, is the only one who is clearly named throughout the film. Wang Bing singles him out and thereby forces the viewer to recognise the man whenever he pops up in the director’s frames.

And this he does when his wife comes to see him in his shop (“their shop”, as she insists) in order to ask him for money. The marriage had been problematic since the beginning, but it boiled over when she invested in a small textile company. Now, her body is covered in bruises. Wang Bing remains outside of the shop and films the violent encounter between husband and wife, the former repeatedly threatening that he would kill her, that he would skin her alive. He repeatedly grabs her by the throat and hits her, all the while Wang Bing keeps recording. Ethics are a thoroughly interesting subject in the director’s films, and it would need another post in order to explore this in more detail. Suffice to say here that I did wonder when (if at all) Wang Bing would have interfered in this lengthy, very uncomfortable scene.

In the meantime, the teenage girl’s cousin is returning home, which sets the actual exploration of working conditions in motion. The young man complains about the long working hours – he begins at 7am and works till midnight with no lunch break – and decides that this isn’t a life for him. This is followed by the first extensive sequence showing people manufacturing clothes, seemingly in a normal house, upstairs, with only a sewing machine and pairs of scissors. It’s very rudimentary, and looks almost clandestine. There is one girl in this group of people who doesn’t look older than 14. Indeed, Bitter Money, as mentioned above, shows the young generation more than anything else, and investigates whether they have a better life than their parents had hoped for.

After two-and-a-half hours, I’m not sure I can say that they’re better off. If you look at West of the Tracks, you could say that there are less health hazards in the textile industry, at least in those areas that Wang Bing shows us. However, there is little else that sets those young people off from their parents. Worst of all is, perhaps, that they don’t have a home to go to. The workers live together in austere rooms. Their actual homes are often so far away from the city that they can’t go home without taking too many days off work, which means a huge loss of money. While workers in West of the Tracks seem to be long-standing colleagues who have spent half their lives together, workers in Bitter Money appear lonely. They work together, but they usually don’t speak. It’s about making the most shirts, the most coats during the day. Anything that can distract is avoided. If a worker isn’t fast enough, s/he gets sacked. In this way, there is a persistent change in the work force and it’s not possible to strike up year-long friendships that help the workers through hardships.

What Bitter Money shows is the individual rather than the collective. Compared to the director’s other films I have seen so far, this one looks very polished and quite deliberately edited in order to follow a three-act structure, something I have already noticed in his testimony film Fengming, a Chinese memoir. Bitter Money lacks the spontaneity that West of the Tracks showed, something that made the film unpredictable and that gave you a real sense of witnessing something. Despite my liking the film, I would say that the director didn’t manage to get to the bottom of what’s happening the way he managed it in West of the Tracks, which perhaps is down to the time spent on the subject matter. For both films, he spent over 2 years filming, but the end result is very different: there is a nine-hour piece on the one hand that contains all details of the collapse of an industrial complex, and a two-and-a-half hour film on the other that, to me, is strong, but could be much stronger if it had been given more time to breathe. I begin to wonder whether long running times aren’t best for documentaries, because you know that if a director has filmed for two years and the final product is comparatively short, a lot of material has been cut.

Osmosis – Nasos Karabelas (2016)

!!! This film is available on tao films until the end of March 2017 !!!

And there he stands, a ruin forgotten by everyone – and more so by himself than by any other. He isn’t moving, nor is he sensing anything.  

Nasos Karabelas’s Osmosis (2016) starts in a bleak tone. The deep male voice reminiscing about the self is captivating. Usually, it is images that don’t let you go, images which you must keep looking at. In Osmosis, it is the sound, the voice, which holds you captive. You cannot not listen. Karabelas’s piece is deeply philosophical, underlined with a minimalist mise-en-scène, which, at times, brings forth striking frames.

What is osmosis? It can be a process of absorption, a process of assimilation. What happens to the self in the process of assimilation? It may, by way of assimilation, become nothing. The person begins to feel lonely in a vibrant community because something of him/herself got lost in the process of assimilation. It is this loss that, to me, is very important in Karabelas’s film. I might sound contradictory when I say that the film is characterised by nothingness and emptiness while previously having mentioned the strong presence of a voice-over throughout. But these two don’t have to cancel each other out. On the contrary. The voice-over highlights emptiness, nothingness, the search for something, the burden of loneliness.

He stands on the threshold of nonentity like someone without sense of himself, disenchanted by everything within a world where nothing is lovable. He passes into death already dead, tasting all the abhorrence and the denial of living.

Karabelas said in an interview with tao films that he didn’t want to give answers with this film. He wanted to pose questions, and this he does. Osmosis is a film that despite its slow pace does not allow the viewer to simply sink into his/her chair. If you let the film happen to you and focus on the voice-over, you fill find your thoughts wander. It is not a film which you can simply “accept”. Osmosis needs to be dealt with, enquired, questioned.

The film’s aesthetics help with this. Karabelas uses a simple grey to black-and-white tone. The frames are empty. The unnamed protagonist is often only a dot in a vast landscape. Or a figure of sorrow in nothingness. At times, I even wondered whether he needed to be there, whether this destitute existence would have perhaps been stronger without him, to reinforce the idea of emptiness even more.

All he sees is distaste, and that disgusts him. He feels the anguish. But he’s always there, he can’t but be there. The wait makes him languish.

In a way, Osmosis could be a parable for the modern world experience. It is not a secret that people consider life today as bleak, full of problems, destruction and destitution. Of course, this isn’t a general sensation, but it does exist and it’s not rare. Karabelas explores this feeling very effectively and asks us to follow him through the mind of his protagonist.But who is this protagonist? Is he a man as shown in the film? Or does he stand for a much wider, much larger entity?

Homo Sapiens – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (2016)

Who, or maybe what, is Homo Sapiens? Wise man, they say. But is Homo Sapiens just that? Does Homo Sapiens stand entirely for the human being we are? I’m not so sure. And I think Nikolas Geyrhalter’s superb poetic piece Homo Sapiens is, in effect, posing this question without giving answers.

Geyrhalter does not focus on the living aspects of Homo Sapiens, but of what Homo Sapiens has left behind. His film is about abandoned places, empty places, spaces where nature takes over as if man has never been there. Man exists as a spectre. He is in the buildings Geyrhalter films, the buildings which are not far from collapsing, from falling into pieces. He is in the abandoned playgrounds, in the abandoned train stations. He hovers like a ghost over every single image of Homo Sapiens. You can feel him, but you will never go beyond this feeling.

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What takes over instead is a beautiful, intriguing soundscape. I closed my eyes from time to time to listen to the sounds. I could never tell where I was, but did that really matter? The sounds took me into an eerie, unnatural world, which at times reminded me of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, reinforced once I opened my eyes again and saw abandoned buildings. It felt like being in a zone, in Tarkovsky’s zona, where life and death exists in the same image.

The images might be static. They might show nothing interesting. What is interesting instead is what is going on in your mind. We’re speaking of yes boredom here. If you’re willing to take on a film of 90 minutes which shows nothing but run-down buildings, you begin to create your own narrative. What games did the children play in that playground overgrown with grass? What film did they show in that decayed filmhouse? How many people used to come every night for their evening entertainment? Who was the person who left his or her bike under a shed at that abandoned train station in Japan?

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Why did the people leave in the first place? I started to wonder why the places I saw had been abandoned. I began to think of Fukushima. I began to think of war. I had all kinds of things in my head. In fact, my mind felt very different from what the images showed. My mind was busy making up fictional stories about what happened at the places I saw. I made up fictional stories about the people who shaped those places. Who were they? And, more importantly, when were they there?

Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens is full of fascinating shots. Almost every frame is a beauty in itself. It’s incredible how much beauty you can find in destruction and abandonment. Homo Sapiens achieves this through perfect framing. This reminds me again of something I have read somewhere (God knows where!) and which applies so well to slow films: it doesn’t matter what you show. It’s a question of how you show it. You can show the most simple things, but they can become complex and special depending on how you show them. This is the case with Geyrhalter’s film.

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I suppose many people would just walk past those abandoned places, but he makes us stop for a moment. He makes us look at them, and he gives us time to appreciate what we see. Wee see the past, the present and the future. We see what we built. We see what is now decaying. And we see how the planet will look like after Homo Sapiens is gone. Regardless of what we’re building right now, nature will take over. It is nature that is wise. It is patiently waiting for its time, for its time to breathe and for its time to expand.

Silence in Dreamland – Tito Molina (2013)

I know exactly where to put Ecuador on the map. Unfortunately, I do not know where to put Ecuador on the map of world cinema. It’s one of those countries that is shamelessly underreported. There is quite a lot of material about South/Latin American cinema. Yet, Ecuador plays only a marginal role and I wonder why that is.

Tito Molina has put Ecuador on the map of world cinema. With Silence in Dreamland (2013) he has created a stunning portrayal of – surprise! – silence and dreams, but also of ageing, loneliness, and love. The narrative can be quickly summarised: an elderly woman, lonely after the death of her husband, goes about her daily chores. The routine is broken when Cokie, a truly lovable dog appears in front of her window and both strike up a very special relationship. This summary is a good example for why I never read summaries. Indeed, many films have kind of the same thrust and summaries therefore make them boring. But it is the cinematic treatment that is interesting, and it is the same here with Molina’s work.

Silence is a superb slow film that has a meditative, observational rhythm, though partly disrupted by quick cuts so as to indicate brief dream interludes that come in a flash. Molina’s attention to detail, such as his close-up of the woman’s neck to focus on her pulse and her breathing, helps to create an intimate portray of her. I felt as though she was more than a simple subject of a film. There was a bond between filmmaker and character, even between viewer and character, which grew throughout the film. Another detail, which I loved was the persistent electricity cut. Sometimes you didn’t notice it until you looked at the oven behind her, which suddenly ceased to display the time. It’s subtle, but it’s also a reminder that the background of a film is just as significant as everything that happens in the foreground.

Molina introduces aesthetics to Slow Cinema that are unusual. I’m speaking of dissolves, a lot of music in the background, superimpositions. If I had read about these techniques in his film beforehand without having seen the trailer of Silence, I would have been hesitant. Yet, Molina uses these techniques and incorporates them superbly and lovingly into the genre, or movement, or simply this form of cinema. This combination of techniques greatly enriches the viewing experience. A while ago, I wrote about the effects of music and dialogue on our perception of slowness and came to the conclusion that both speed up the film. For some reason, I didn’t have the same impression this time. Either I have changed my point-of-view regarding the issue entirely, or maybe Molina makes better use of music and dialogue than Apichatpong Weerasethakul in Mekong Hotel. It is a mystery. In any case, there is quite a lot of music in Silence, which is a rather interesting contradiction. The music, however, is slow. Very traditional, kind of melancholic so that it works well with the subject matter of the film.

Silence awakened my interest in photography again. I know I say this with a lot of films. But despite this, it is actually not as easy to impress me visually as it sounds. Molina has a superb eye for composition, though, and I wonder what his background is. It doesn’t look painterly, but oh my, some of his shots are worth taking a snapshot of, have them printed and framed. Especially the shots at the sea are magnificent. Shot from above, we see the woman and Cokie walking along the beach, for instance. They both mere dots because of the sheer height of the camera. Molina’s capturing of the sea is truly beautiful and adds a hypnotic rhythm to the film, apart from its making you fall in love with his photographic eye.

In all, I wasn’t all too surprised to see such a fantastic film after the trailer perfectly convinced me that this would be a superb work. Molina is certainly an upcoming and very talented director, who is worth following in the future.

My thanks goes to Tito Molina, who has kindly provided me with a copy of his film. An interview with the director will follow on this website.

Fogo – Yulene Olaizola (2012)

Have I ever mentioned that I love my “job”? It makes me really happy to discover all those talented, yet unknown directors from all over the world, whose films are a pleasure to watch. Yulene Olaizola’s Fogo (2012) is one of those films. Unfortunately, it is one of so many slow films that have not yet received adequate distribution, especially in Europe. So I’m very much in her debt for granting me access to a screener.

Olaizola is a Mexican director. After Nicolas Pereda, Pedro Gonzales-Rubio, and Francisco Vargas, she is the fourth stunning slow-film director from Mexico. There appears to be a real pool of slow talent over there, and I hope to see more in future. Fogo is, however, not set in Mexico, but in Canada, on the Fogo Island. Uncommon for Slow Cinema, the film starts with music over black screen, and then a cut positions us behind a man, wrapped up in thick clothes, who is slowly walking along a path while the camera, following him, slowly moves from eye level to a high angle shot. It’s a smooth transition, and it’s beautiful. This isn’t the only beautiful shot in the film. In fact, the entire film contains superb compositions. It once more reinforces my idea that slow-film directors really have a photographic eye, if trained or not.

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The music stops, the screen goes black again. A smooth dissolve starts the actual narrative. With the man we saw earlier walking in the background as a tiny dot in the landscape, our eyes are fixed on the ruins of houses we’re shown. There is one particularly tilted house, possibly a result of landslides. The man knocks on the door of that house, saying “Last ferry leaves day after tomorrow.” What is going on?

There is this remarkable shot which I can’t get out of my head. It’s indoors, dark, with a bit of backlight coming through the window, which illuminates the window itself like a holy relic. A man sits on the right hand side of the frame. Waiting. In silence. He’s the man in the titled house. Through a conversation between him and another man, we learn that the part of the island the films is set in is to be evacuated. People can no longer live there. More shots of the island throughout the film make the reason behind the evacuation obvious: it’s an utterly desolate landscape. It’s a landscape of emptiness (as is so often the case in slow films) that cannot provide for the people anymore. The island stands for death.

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While most people leave the island, two men stay behind. Even though they’re alone there, I see it as a solitary confinement. Truth is, the last ferry is gone. They have decided to die (slowly) on this island, so in effect they are trapped. Trapped alone, but together. In this way, Fogo is Slow Cinema par excellence. The entire narrative is structured around absence and emptiness. Death is hinted at. It is about loneliness and hopelessness. There are lengthy scenes of two men walking across the island to seek a better place, where they can stay until the end. There is this feeling of imminent death. One scene that reminds me of it, which conveys this brilliantly, shows one of the men chopping wood. Now, the frame is rather empty, and it contains only one tree, which is positioned a bit off-centre. Nowhere, not even in the farthest background is there any other tree visible. It looks as if the man chops down the last tree of the island to get some fire wood. The last resources are being used.

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Throughout the film, the light is low. It’s a rather dark scenery, but it is important to note that with growing hopelessness, the frames become darker. Indeed, we could move towards night. Yet the very fact that light is diminishing conveys a reliable sense of “the end”, both in terms of the film itself, but also that of the people on this island.

What I’m not entirely sure about is just how much fiction and fact is in it. Again, this appears to be a common trope within Slow Cinema. I remember Nicolas Pereda, who always moves between fiction and documentary. Lav Diaz did the same in Death in the Land of Encantos. And Michela Occhipinti approached Letters from the Desert in a very similar way. I assume that Fogo is also one of those films that are a bit of both. I wonder if it would make sense to re-define the term docu-fiction in relation to Slow Cinema. I think it would be useful, certainly for those films.

Anyway, if Fogo appears at a festival near you, do please go see it. If you want to see a superb slow film, then this is a very good choice, in particular because it is only an hour long. Good for all those people, who have little patience for slowness!

Day 18 – Inori (Gonzales-Rubio)

If my memory doesn’t trick me, then this is a premier for me: a slow film set in Japan. Not really made by a Japanese filmmaker, but this matters little. I was, in fact, surprised when I read that Gonzales-Rubio, whose film Alamar I reviewed earlier this month, contributed to the NARAtive Film Festival Project, which Naomi Kawase initiated.

Rubio’s documentary Inori (2012) is set in the surroundings of Nara, east of Osaka. It is one of those cinematic works that brings everything that makes a slow film a slow film together. The documentary follows the lives of a few remaining inhabitants of the area. Elderly people who are dwelling on their memories of the past.

Inori (2012), Pedro Gonzales-Rubio

Inori is set in a  striking environment. It’s one of those landscapes that by definition evoke slowness. You don’t have to do much as a filmmaker anymore. You only need to set up the camera, let it run, and let the viewer dive into a different world.

I found it striking to hear how the area used to look like, and how the people react to the transformation. It is perhaps the complete opposite of the viewer’s perception. Most definitely, it is in stark contrast to my own perception. The area used to be lively, full of children and young people. But the economy crumbled. The younger generation moved away to big cities where they could find work. Today, the area is empty and quite literally slow. I didn’t get the feeling that people liked it. And this is where the urban spectator comes in. Or rather, the fed-up urban spectator. Fed up of speed, of abundance, wishing to have a slightly calmer life. I would die for a quite surrounding like this!

But I’m only the spectator, and not the inhabitant whose surroundings have entirely changed their faces. It’s like watching a village die. In general, death has a certain omnipresence in the documentary. The change of the village itself, the emptiness of it, tells one of the many stories of death in Inori. However, there is also the presence of graves. There is this wonderfully metaphorical shot. The camera is tilted right to the top of trees, then slowly tilts down to reveal a grave; Heaven and Earth, connected via a simple but effective camera movement.

Inori (2012), Pedro Gonzales-Rubio

There is talk about paradise and different worlds. I’m aware that people speak of these things in connection to the afterlife. But if you hear them talking, it almost seems as if they also talk about Nara before it became a near-dead area. There is this recurring sense of ambiguity in Inori. And yet, if I wasn’t writing a blog post on it, I wouldn’t pose any questions. It is a film you can simply follow and go where it might take you. It reminds me of floating on water, floating with the current. No effort at all, just let your mind be taken to a wonderful Japanese area, and be introduced to some interesting people, who all share their stories with us.

Day 8 – Vive l’Amour (Ming-liang)

Time for a bit of love on the second advent. Or maybe not, because Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive l’Amour (1994) is, as all of his other films, not exactly uplifting. But let’s start from the beginning.

Vive l’Amour stands, with Rebels of the Neon God (1992), at the beginning of Tsai’s career. The film was made almost 20 years ago, and when I saw it it reminded me of something Béla Tarr said (I think it was him, but I can be very wrong here): I always make the same film.

It is not so much that Tsai makes the same film over and over again, but if you are familiar with all of his films, you begin to notice the similarities of all of them. It is not only the actor, Kang-Sheng Lee, who appears in every one of his films (who made an impressive appearance in Walker). It is also the themes that remain the same. I mentioned in previous blog posts that poverty is a major issue in Slow Cinema. This is not the case in Tsai’s films. What is striking in his work is the treatment and depiction of loneliness and longing.

Vive l’Amour (1994), Tsai Ming-liang

To my surprise, I had difficulties labelling Vive l’Amour as a straightforward slow film, even though I know that it is often listed as one. I wondered whether I have perhaps become too used to slowness in film that it has become hard for me to judge if something is exceptionally slow, or just “normal” (as in, normal speed like in real life). The film is not a fast film, but I find it faster than his other films. Considering Tsai’s development as a director, his films have over time become slower and also more photographic. L’Amour is not photographic at all, an element that I found specially interesting in his other films such as I don’t want to sleep alone (2006).

There is also more movement in L’Amour than in his other films. Again, this is not to say that the film is fast. I’m merely trying to point out differences in filmmaking that are evident. Tsai has, however, already included his seeming obsession with tight corridors and double framing. And his love for melons!

Vive l’Amour (1994), Tsai Ming-liang

Already, his characters are suffering from loneliness, and even though there is, as usual, sex involved in his films, there is actually little intimacy between the characters. Whenever I watch Tsai’s films, I cannot help but think of a poem by Alfred Wolfenstein, a German poet, whose vivid Städter from 1913 describes the gradual isolation and loneliness of people living in (big) urban spaces. For me, every film by Tsai is an illustration of this poem, an illustration of how cramped urban spaces encourage anonymity and solitude instead of social living. But even though people choose to live in solitude, they long for love and social interaction. This discrepancy naturally causes problems, and Tsai is a director who has picked up this issue time and again, and made some wonderful films out of it.

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.)