An Elephant Sitting Still – Hu Bo (2018)

There are good films. There are bad films. There are exciting films, awesome films, overwhelming films. There are also underwhelming films, those that are total junk and a complete waste of time. There are those exclamations like “wow!” or “no, no, I don’t believe this!”. Maybe even something like “best film of the year for me!”. And then there is Hu Bo’s first and only feature film An Elephant Sitting Still, which he had completed in late 2017 before he committed suicide. There is no word or expression in the three languages I speak that would help me express what I feel about this film.

There are films that make you interested in film, and you pick it up as a study subject at university. Or you pick up a camera yourself. There are films that touch you deeply. Films that make you cry, make you laugh. People sometimes speak of emotional rollercoasters. And then there is An Elephant Sitting Still, which makes me want to stop watching films because I don’t want to stain what I have seen with other films. I would like to keep this film as the last film I would ever see because it is so rich, so pure, so deep.

We are all looking for something in life. You might not be aware of it until you find the one thing that you had been looking for. I have been looking for An Elephant Sitting Still. My now ten years in film, especially in slow film, on a quest to find the answer to something I haven’t even asked a question about, have found what I seem have been unconsciously looking for. And this something doesn’t have a word. Or a feeling. It’s something deep inside me.

Milan Kundera wrote a book called The Unbearable Lightness of Being, later adapted to the big screen. The Unbearable Weight Of Being – this is what Hu Bo captures. The weight of living, of breathing, of surviving, or trying to. The weight of our times. Chantal Akerman always wanted us to feel time. Hu Bo wants us to feel the weight of it. The calculated stillness in numerous extended long-takes functions like the weight of an elephant, several tons that crush you underneath its feet. You fight, but what do you fight for if there is no alternative?

The time spent on fighting the agony, on lifting the weight of time, only adds to the feeling of hopelessness. Hu Bo’s characters struggle with the existential question of what their life is worth. This isn’t a truly pessimistic look at life. It is, rather, an existential look at our times, at our stillness in the face of time.

Hu Bo’s moving images are drained of energy, of colour. The film itself is tired, but uses its last bit of energy on telling its characters’ stories. There is resistance, yet not enough in the face of an overwhelming external and invisible force. Every hour spent with the characters feels like an entire life. It is not just the weight of time that drains the characters. It is their anger, often contained, swallowed, until the last straw break’s the camel’s neck. Then, verbal and physical violence becomes omnipresent, but only briefly, often in the off.

There is a boiling point which the film is headed towards. Not a climax, followed by a denouement. An Elephant Sitting Still is eternal. It is our film, our malaise of trying to make something out of our lives in an increasingly hostile world in which we millennials are the first generation to feel the brutality of this new age in which it is difficult enough to survive and even more difficult to live.

Life as an eternal tragedy. Life as an eternal struggle. For those who live in the here and now, the film becomes an expression of their pain without ever trying to make us feel sorry. Without ever trying to make us cry. Wang Jin, an elderly man who faces the fate of spending the rest of his days in a nursing home, says towards the end: “by not going (elsewhere), you learn how to live with it here.”

Elsewhere is always close. We see one character, up close, and another blurred in the background. Elsewhere. The dream of something better than this. A dream that keeps us going, crawling almost, with the few resources we have left. And yet, Hu Bo’s Elephant is not hopeless or worthless, as the film’s characters think they are. Elephant is the one reason why all of this is worth it.

Endnote: If you expected an in-depth review of the film, I’m sorry that I have disappointed you. The experience of Elephant is special. I have thought for a long time that I shouldn’t write about it at all. I don’t want to talk about it either. Elephant is inside me, and only I have the key to it. Never in my life have I had such an experience, but, as I have said above, all of the struggles in my life were worth it if it meant discovering such a film at some point in my life.

Almost There – Jacqueline Zünd (2016)

A caravan in the centre of the frame. An empty parking lot. The caravan neatly divides the frame into two equal parts. It’s a beautiful shot that, despite a faint male voice in the off, sets the tone for themes of loneliness, emptiness but also will and resilience. “Employees form a group. Overnight you become an individual,” a Japanese retiree tells us. Jacqueline Zünd, following three men in the US, in Europe and in Japan through a life-changing situation, proves herself to be a quiet but detailed observer, letting images rest, letting them breathe and wash at our shores.

Bob Pearson is a 50+ man, single. His ex-girlfriend pushed him to do something with the rest of his life. He became aware that he could die any day, and that there might not be a tomorrow. The camper van tour they had planned together has turned into a one-man show, just like the nightly stand-up show Steve puts on in Spain after having left a life of lies about his sexuality behind in England. Yamada, acknowledging that he had been married to his job, struggles to be “an individual”, struggles not to be part of a strictly formed hierarchy that his job had given him. He’s retired, now what?

Each one of those three men has a particular personality, a particular nature. They seem to be different types, but all three share one thing: they started anew. They changed their lives, their lives needed to change. Something in them pushed them towards taking the jump, the jump into the cold water of trying something new, facing the unknown. “If I want to do something, I want to do it now,” says Bob. Almost There is intrinsically tied to the process of ageing, of our having to face the reality of death, all the while trying to push it aside, push it further away, one more day, one more week. Maybe if I did this or that, I could say that I had a more meaningful life? Maybe I didn’t take enough risks, risks I could take now? 

Of course, the real protagonist is time. It’s not only the process of ageing that makes the forward progression of time evident. There is also a fascinating push-and-pull between stillness and movement, between a stop and a forward jump. Zünd follows Bob on his journey with his camper van, more on the move than standing still. At times, he sits in a bar to have a drink, at others he gets a quick hair cut. Apart from those brief moments, Bob’s life feels like being constantly on the move. “I’m always scared,” he says at some point. He seems a lonely person. Zünd breaks her aesthetics, almost brutally, in order to insert family photographs of Bob, at a time he was younger. He had never been a particularly happy child, nor a particularly sad one. And yet, it becomes evident that he seeks solitude. He wishes for company here and there, but one gets the feeling that this coat of solitude seems to suit him well.

It is here, again, that time becomes the main force. As it does with Yamada. Shortly after his retirement, he didn’t know how to handle his “new life”. He struggled to fill his time, but, after a friend suggested it, he began to read to children. Zünd follows him on his journey, a particularly touching one, I found, one in which a father admits that he had never done anything for his children and that now he seeks to rectify the wrongs he had done. He’s making amends. He uses the time he has left to make up for the time he has already spent. Interestingly, Yamada’s film segments are a pool of stillness as opposed to the segments of Bob and Steve. At the end of the film, it feels as though only he has managed to find his place, his role in this new life of his.

This is different with Steve. Zünd follows him through the streets in Blackpool (me thinks!) and Benidorm in Spain. Zünd’s frames are beautiful, painterly almost. They’re frames worth printing. They put the film characters in an extraordinarily expressive surrounding that makes them appear small but dominant at the same time. They seem lost, but also in control. As Steve says towards the end of the film, he wasn’t sad or angry. If you were to feel this, you would be lost in the world. While Zünd’s frames, and her almost continuous music does make one feel sad for the characters – so much that I did have watery eyes at some point – there is a fascinating, opposing optimism in the film. It’s a sort of optimism that does not express itself through the film’s aesthetics. It opposes it. It does not openly embrace it.

It’s this specific clash that makes Zünd’s Almost There a gorgeous, a powerful, a deeply moving piece. I saw it for the first time two years ago, and it didn’t let me go. Zünd’s images have haunted me until today, and it’s not only the images that stayed with me. The film is telling a simple story about life, a universal story, but a story that we tend to push away: we’re ageing, we’re inevitably walking towards death. During my PhD research I came across the concept of TMT, Trauma Management Therapy. It’s said that we are naturally afraid of death, daily. But we do everything to keep this in check. One way of doing this is seeking something that would make us immortal in one way or another, to achieve something. I think that Zünd’s Almost There is a good demonstration of this, specially prominent in the story of Yamada, whose reading, we feel, will make him immortal, if only, perhaps, to the school children.

Almost there. Where? Zünd, I believe, brings us closer to ourselves. Ourselves as humans. The characters seem specific, but they speak from their souls, our souls. The film is human, and I’m not sure if I can name a more human film, a more down-to-earth human film that is this powerful. It is perhaps one of the best films of all time for me personally, and an absolute must-see, especially for those who love contemplative cinema. 

Arresting trauma – Martti Helde’s In The Crosswinds (2014)

“On the night of 14 June 1941, more than 40,000 innocent people were deported from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The aim of this secret operation – done on Stalin’s orders – was to ethnically cleanse the Baltic countries of their native peoples.”

In the context of my research into the representation of post-trauma in the films of Lav Diaz, I have published a few posts here on this blog, which equally dealt with the subject. There is, first of all, a rather personal account of my dealing with PTSD and how Slow Cinema helped me to become more mindful. There is also an article on the link between Slow Cinema and Cultural Memory. In fact, throughout my research and my trying to come to terms with my own experience, I have realised that trauma research focuses almost exclusively on the aspect of speed (as mentioned in my PhD thesis). There is little doubt that life after trauma is different. Anxiety and panic introduce an aspect of speed to one’s life that seemingly spirals out of control. But there is also an aspect that tends to be forgotten: an aspect of duration and slowness. It can take a while before post-trauma, for instance, manifests itself in the body/psyche. Traumatic memories return over and over again, a circular repetition that makes the actual post-trauma life seem endless. You can read more about the aspect of slowness in the context of trauma in my thesis.

In my thesis, I have argued that Diaz’s use of absence and long duration effectively (and affectively!) represents post-trauma without ever showing the traumatic event that has led to the character’s suffering. What matters is the time spent on the character and on his/her suffering. Quite some time ago, I have come across an Estonian film, which I rewatched yesterday and I cannot not write about this film. Perhaps, it is not a traditional, straightforward slow film, and yet it is a film that uses slowness, duration and absence for a representation of post-trauma (or trauma-in-the-making), but in a completely different way.

The film begins with white letters on a black screen. There is no sound. The quietness reinforces the meaning of the dates and numbers that characterise the deportation of over 40,000 innocent people. Filmmaker Martti Helde sets a historical context and explains that his film In The Crosswinds (2014) is based on letters written by Erna Tamm, who had been writing to her husband from whom she was separated during the deportation. For me, Crosswinds stands out as a remarkable experiment on how trauma can be represented on screen without turning it into a spectacle, which is always an ethical problem filmmakers have to negotiate. There is one characteristic in which Diaz’s and Helde’s representation of traumatic events are similar: the directors’ use of absence. Neither Diaz nor Helde show traumatic events on screen. Even though Helde does focus on the actual deportation, his approach to its representation allows for empty space that needs to be filled by the spectator. Atrocities such as mass killings and rape are not shown on screen. Helde shows the before and after, or a voice over informs us about the traumatic event. Yet, the director positions us, confusingly, within the traumatic event without showing all the terrible details, all the while making sure that we cannot be mistaken about what’s really happening.

“Heldur, time has taken on another dimension. The temporary has passed. We measure time by the news that reaches us. That way the days and weeks seem shorter.”

All of this might sound like films I have spoken about before in the context of slowness and trauma. And yet, Crosswinds stands out in one specific way, and it addresses several themes I have mentioned on this blog before. The film has, in fact, two sides to it. Each follows its own temporality, its own aesthetic. Let’s begin with flashbacks, memories of the good times, times before the start of the deportation. The film starts in greyscale. A voice over says, “I received your letter. I’m in your homeland.” The camera, with its beautiful and graceful movements, explores a backyard. There is a blooming apple tree, Erna sorting the laundry. Inside the house, we see her, her husband Heldur and her daughter Eliide having breakfast. The sun is shining. It’s a wonderful image of peace. They talk to one another, but the viewer is excluded from their conversation. Helde silences the voices and focuses instead on ambient sound in order to reinforce this image of quietude and peace. These times of before return once or twice during the film. The main emphasis, however, is placed on the deportation, the journey to and life in Siberia, and the struggles of the deported to survive.

The deportation set something in motion that one would call traumatisme in French. The English language doesn’t have a clear-cut distinction between the traumatic event and the psychological reaction. Not all traumatic events lead to PTSD, albeit PTSD is the only term that makes it absolutely clear that you’re speaking about something post trauma. In Helde’s film, the impact of trauma (the event) is represented on screen by a literal arrest, a stoppage of time and of movement. Crosswinds is a film, in which, in the majority of scenes, characters do not move. They’re standing still, arrested in certain positions while the camera circles around them. It feels as though you’re walking through a haunted past, photographs that have arrested the atrocities committed on Stalin’s orders. It is as though the deported are put to rest (albeit not in a good way). When Erna’s family is arrested, we don’t see the actual arrest. Helde places all three characters on the back of a lorry, sitting still, watching in fear. The soundscape tells us that officers smash glass in the family house. But only the sound tells us of this violent attack. There is no image of it. When the lorry arrives at the local train station, the camera circles around hundreds of to-be-deported people: children, women, men, old and young, rich and poor. There seemed to have been no one who was spared. Everyone on the platform stands as though arrested. The violent scenes we know from Holocaust cinema, in which the spectator is confronted with crying children, begging mothers, shots in the air, forceful commands etc are not present here. What happens instead is that life comes to a halt. Trauma arrests time. Trauma disrupts the continuation of time towards the future. It’s a ghostly atmosphere. It is as though the people on the train platform are already dead, still, stiff, a mere memory of the past (to get a better idea of what I’m speaking of you should watch this scene!).

“We’re prisoners of nature. I wonder if there have ever been any prisoners with so much space that you long for boundaries.”

Crosswinds focuses on Erna’s story, her attempt at survival, the tragic loss of Eliide, who became weaker by the day. Starvation is rampant. So are diseases. Erna’s daughter is one of many who survive the deportation, but not life in Siberia. In a voice over, we’re told that of the 51 women in Erna’s train waggon, 42 made it to the destination. One mother killed herself and her child on the journey.

Every woman is expected to work. They chop wood day in day out, in freezing temperatures with little food that is not even enough for a child. Erna strikes up a friendship with Hermiine, but even she cannot protect Erna from sexual assault and rape in exchange for a loaf of bread. The camera is constantly in movement. It is as free as the camera in Béla Tarr’s films, but its function is different in Crosswinds. Helde’s camera is searching for something or someone. It is always looking for something, not knowing what it would find. There are a lot of empty frames which the camera uses as a cue to keep moving, to keep looking. Here again it might be worth returning to my post about the filmind in Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo in order to see how a film can be created in such a way that it appears to have its own mind, its own ways of thinking. Apart from ZerkaloCrosswinds stands out as the other great example of this.

It takes almost fifty minutes before we see Heldur again, separated from his wife on the platform. Because of Erna’s letter, we learn that the men were deported into another direction. Whereto – this isn’t mentioned at all, but those with knowledge about the war have an idea of what this means. Heldur, dressed almost in rags, head shaven, stands in front of a table behind which three Soviet officers are seated. Helde let’s us guess that this is a make-shift tribunal where Heldur is sentenced to death. The camera spins around the room, while everything else is in arrest. This sequence of scene is the clearest in which the film’s aesthetics represent the action on screen. The non-movement, the two-fold arrest of Heldur (as a prisoner and as a character who doesn’t move), the ghostly images, foreshadow his fate. His non-movement means nothing other than his death.

“Because what is freedom worth if you have to pay for it with solitude?”

It takes the death of Stalin for Erna to be able to return to Estonia. Although she had promised Heldur that she would try to find him after the war, she no longer has any idea of where to look for. “Maybe below the soil?” Erna’s words are poignant, and it took her 47 years to learn that her husband had been murdered. What remains are still, arresting and arrested images of the past that continue to haunt. Because of their stillness, the images Helde has created stay with you. The long duration of the scenes, the stillness of the image, the haunting (visual) absence of atrocities all contribute to a remarkable film experience that, to me, represents perhaps most adequately the post trauma.

Visitor – Sebastian Cordes (2018)

“It is said that man has always wandered. Out of need or curiosity, across deserts and oceans.”

This is how the new feature film by Danish director Sebastian Cordes begins. After his Bolivia-set A Place Called Lloyd, which is currently running on tao films for free, Cordes took a journey to the island of Chios, Greece. As he states at the beginning of his film, the years 2015 and 2016 were seminal in the European consciousness. Indeed, they were. They will remain with us for years to come, perhaps especially for me as I’m originally from Germany and my country was the only one that had heart enough to open the borders. The German chancellor paid dearly for this, politically, which is still difficult for me to grasp. You don’t have to agree with a politician, but you can agree with another human being on helping other people to find refuge, people who flee from war, from certain death, people who have lost their home, possibly even their entire family.

This background represents the core of Cordes’ Visitor. Set on the island of Chios, the director films life on the island as it is, an obscure parallel world of normality for the local population and an extraordinary world for those who have landed in Chios, “where Turkey is always at the horizon”. A static low level shot that shows a police car on the right hand side and the raging sea on the left opens the film visually. The shot sets the tone of the film. Its emptiness, its anonymity, is something that will return over and over again throughout Visitor. The raging wind, too, is always present, right at your ears, in the weeks before Christmas. Not much later, there is a poignant shot of a stone wall. A very simple shot. There is nothing beautiful about it. It is a wall, nothing more, nothing less. Water flows underneath it. The waves push the water onto the land, right underneath the wall. “No borders” – this is what’s written on this stone wall, stone, which stands for harshness, hardness, durability, for a definite attempt to keep other people out of your territory. It is this phrase that dismantles the wall. Two words: No borders.

Visitor is an observational documentary. It is self-reflexive. It is contemplating itself and what is happening around it. Time and again, Cordes cuts to a black screen and makes us think about who we are. Visitor poses the question of who the visitor is which Cordes names in the film’s title. First of all, the viewer is at all times aware of the director’s presence. He’s got a shadowy presence in one shot. In another, we can see (parts of) him at a restaurant. Cordes doesn’t hide his presence. He’s the visitor, he’s the person whose “body is blue eyes white skin”. He’s the one who shoots the footage, who assembles it and who tells the story of life on Chios. But this isn’t the whole truth, the full meaning of the title. What are the refugees Cordes is, except for the very end, filming only from the distance, the refugees who have an absent presence, an almost haunting presence throughout the film’s running time of just over an hour?

One of the defining responses to the refugee crises in Europe was that countries expected the refugees to keep moving on. No country wanted to shelter them permanently. The response, not new at all, sadly, is at the core of Anna Seghers’ novel Transit, which is set in Marseille just after German troops have invaded France. Transit painfully shows that the whole idea of giving refuge to someone is to help him or her to move somewhere else. The novel is a representation of the inhumane treatment of those who flee from persecution. It is all encapsulated in the attempt of getting a visa to stay in Marseille: you can only stay if you prove that you’re leaving again. The situation Europe faced in 2015 did not change anything in our response to something we had seen and dealt with before. Cordes’ film title makes a point, a point that you might not see at first because you consider the director as the only visitor present in the film. But Visitor also speaks of the “visiting” refugees, of temporary shelters, temporary safety, and the expectations that they just move on. It doesn’t matter where to, as long as they do not stay in “our” country.

Poignantly enough, Cordes includes a shot of the shopping window of a transit ship agency. Transit – keep moving, keep moving. Don’t stay, don’t stop. There are shots of the open sea interspersed with more static and empty shots; a contrast which Cordes creates deliberately. The raging sea, the wind in our ears – this is it, this is movement, this is a continuous forward movement. But where should those people go if no country wants them? 

“My body is not the capsized boat in the open sea, the stillness when the sea again falls still.”

Voice-over parts like those cut through the narrative like a sharp knife. While at the beginning, the question could be whose body the voice-over speaks of, it becomes inevitably clear in the course of the film that this body is our body. Cordes not only speaks of himself here. This has a larger, a more wide-ranging meaning. He tells the story of those who died, those who suffered on their way to a hoped-for refuge. He tells the story of who we are not, because we are the “blue eyes white skin”. We are the privileged, those who look at refugees from a safe distance, possibly sitting in front of our telly on a sofa, with the radiator on full blow so that we don’t get cold.

Visitor becomes a real force towards the end, really bringing home the idea of visiting, the idea of repetition, in particular when the director speaks to an old woman who was aged 5 in 1940 when she suffered from hunger and cold, just like the refugees do now as a result of war. History repeats itself. History doesn’t move forward in a linear fashion. History is an eternal circle of repetitions. What has been, will be again. What we have seen in the past, we will see again in future. The only question is when. But there seems to be little doubt about the actual occurrence. And yet, with this rather bleak feeling that I had at the end of Visitor, Cordes did something. He added hope. Two refugee children making faces for the camera, laughing, playing around. There it is, this hope that I had been missing throughout the film. There it is, in the face of children who have been through so much, who have, in some cases, seen more than one of us does in his/her entire life. But hope is not lost, Cordes tells us, which makes Visitor an important film to see this year.

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…

Three Sisters – Wang Bing (2012)

I become more and more a fan of Wang Bing. I’m  making my way through his filmography in a random order, which is a shame, because I believe that you can actually see China’s economical development through the lens of his films. I can already see it when I watch his films in random order, and I’m sure this would be even stronger if I were to watch all of this films chronologically. Wang Bing is in a completely different league than Lav Diaz, observing reality rather than writing a story. Each director works in a different environment and uses different forms and aesthetics in order to record the dangerous, forgotten, sometimes humiliating present people are living through in their respective countries. What I begin to appreciate about the films of Wang Bing is the director’s observational style. His films are documentaries after all, and he observes (via his camera) in detail about what is happening in front of the camera, in front of his eyes. If I had to decide about which director currently shows the human condition best, it’s most certainly Wang Bing.

Yesterday, I finally had a chance to watch Three Sisters (2012), which had been lying around in my shelf for the last two years. Because I moved three times in two years, all my DVDs were always in cardboard boxes and I had completely forgotten that I even had that film! So while looking for Christmas decoration, I also found this DVD again…that was a sign I had to follow!

Three Sisters, as the film’s title suggests, is a documentary about three sisters, who live in Yuannan, a province in southwest China that borders on Mayanmar and Laos. They live in a village with around 80 other families but without their own parents. The eldest, Yingying is 10 years old and is forced to look after her two sisters Zhenzhen, 6 years old, and Fenfen, 4 years old. Despite her age, Yingying becomes a mother figure as a result of circumstances. Her father is absent from the beginning of the film. It is not said where he is; whether he has left the family behind, whether he is a migrant worker or even whether he is dead. The same is true for the mother, who, throughout the film, is present through her absence. The children and their grandfather talk about her, but we never actually see her.

The children go about their daily lives; they dry their shoes around the fire, shoes that are broken (and which cut Zhenzhen’ ankle all the time), full of mud but still halfway usable. There is nothing else for them anyway. They have to make do with that they have, and Wang Bing shows in his documentary that those children do, like any other child probably would. They eat steamed potatoes in their own house, slowly peeling them just like the unnamed man and his daughter do in Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse; the potato as a staple of our food source that helps to nourish us, but also as a symbol of poverty in that there is little else left. In the evenings, Yingying and her sisters head to her uncle and aunt, who give them one proper meal a day. In return, they help with the animals, such as preparing food for the pigs.

It’s those pigs that lead us to the first heart-breaking scene in the film. The sisters take the pigs out onto a beautiful pasture. It is unclear from the off who it is, but while we are seeing Yingying looking across a plain, one of her sisters shouts: “Does no one want me?” A simple image, a powerful message after having seen the three alone for about half an hour, if not more. The one who shouted this, twice in fact, could be Fenfen. I believe she was also the one who said towards the end of the film “Children who have mothers, that’s is the most wonderful thing in the world!” The lack of parental love does not often find an expression in form of words in Wang Bing’s films, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Those two instances alone make clear what the three sisters really go through, and it is painful. They suffer mostly in silence, which becomes more expressive in Yingying in the second half of the film.

It is a small relief when the father, 32 years old, arrives. It is only then that we learn that he’s a migrant worker, trying to earn enough for the family in a nearby city. As the mother has disappeared (he says he doesn’t know where she is), he has no choice but to leave his children to their own devices. But he is a caring father. Once he’s part of the film, I felt that the film became a bit warmer, more affectionate. He had Fengfeng on his lap and laughed with his children. He washed them, which the children themselves never really did. At least Wang Bing didn’t show them doing so. He genuinely looks after them, and that was good to see after so many “cold” scenes which made my heart bleed. However, the father has also returned to complicate the family situation even more. He can no longer leave all three children to their own devices. His plan was to take Yingting to the city to have her work. But her grandfather said he should rather buy her a new pair of shoes and leave her with him. The father decides to take the two youngest to the city instead. Yingying, it is decided, lives at her grandfather’s, works with and for him, but also attends school. The father argues that taking Yingying to the city would be too expensive, he couldn’t afford the school fees for her. The only solution is to leave her behind.

That decision – Wang Bing follows the father with the two little girls to the bus – has an effect on the rest of the film. Three Sisters becomes a portrait of a lonesome sister, who, all of a sudden, no longer knows what to do, why she is there, what she is there for. Even though she goes to school, something we see only once, and even though she also helps her grandfather with his animals (sheep and goats), she becomes an isolated child who seems to suffer in silence. Once her sisters have left, she turns quieter and quieter, very much detaches herself from this world and from the people around her. She does her chores, but she no longer feels present at all. I often felt as though she was a ghost; she herself, like her mother in a way, becomes a present absence. It’s a remarkable change that takes place in the film, and I’m very glad that I watched the long version of the film (there is a shorter version called Alone), because that really brings the whole power of this growing loneliness and this changing character of a little girl to the forefront.

Wang Bing is superb at observing the daily lives and daily struggles of those who live on the margins of society. What I noticed once more in Three Sisters is that all of his films have a journey at its core. It’s movement, rather than stillness. In West of the Tracks, the factories are dismantled as well as all the houses that the workers had so far lived in. They need to leave and look for another home. In Ta’ang, too, there is the idea of being forced to leave one’s home at the core of the film. Bitter Money shows very young migrant workers, who leave their home to work in the city. Three Sisters has the same core theme; the father having to leave to earn money, the people in the village not being able to pay their tax will see the authorities take their cattle away, which means there won’t be much livelihood left for them. They, too, might have to leave as there is talk about destroying houses, building new ones and bringing electricity to the region. It’s a very small sequence, but it reminded me just how much Wang Bing’s films are centred around the issue of people not having a home.

With that comes restlessness, concerns, questions. All of that is deeply inscribed into the faces of Wang Bing’s characters. The director might focus his camera on China, but his films tell a larger story about where the world has been going politically, economically and socially.

Adam’s Passion, or What is cinema?

I can’t remember anymore in which context I saw the trailer for Adam’s Passion, a performance with music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and stage design by American Robert Wilson. The performance was advertised in German papers as a slow-motion performance, and after I saw the beautiful (!!!) trailer, I gave it a try. First of all, I must recommend it. It’s wonderful to look at. It’s also powerful, meaningful, and even though it’s slow, it’s very engaging.

Now, while watching Adam’s Passion, in particular the beginning when Adam (presumably) moves ever so slowly towards a tree branch (it takes him half an hour to do so!), I began to wonder what difference there was between was I was seeing right there and what I am currently watching for tao films, for instance. In effect, Adam’s Passion has, movement-wise, a lot in common with Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker series. In the context of acting in Lav Diaz’s films, for instance, one often mentions the term “performance”, perhaps because of the films’ lengths.

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I have absolutely no idea where I’m going with this, and I could easily write utter nonsense. Yet considering the nature of Adam’s Passion I need to ask the famous Bazanian question: What is cinema? Very often, it is described in terms of motion. This is perhaps the only thing that sets cinema off still photography. Cinema is moving, it’s moving images. But what is theatre? What is a stage play? I’m sure there are exceptions, but I’m convinced that theatre is motion, too. Scenes are changing; actors and actresses may change their costumes; there is dialogue. Bodies move, the audience moves. Especially nowadays, the border between cinema and theatre is fluid when cinema houses broadcast theatre plays, which means there is at least one camera present during the play.

Except for the few shots where I could see the stage and the audience, there was absolutely no difference between a slow film and Adam’s Passion. Besides, it also had this certain something which only slow films create inside me (and which I still can’t describe). Combined with the stunning music of Arvo Pärt of whom I’m a great fan (although I try not to listen to him too often anymore because it depresses me – in a good way tho!), the performance appeared like an experimental film. This, I’m sure, was facilitated by the work of Robert Wilson, whose stage design was magnificent, and, indeed, cinematic.

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It reminded me on the famous description of cinema as “painting with light”. Can’t remember from the top of my head who referred to cinema in this way. In a way, Wilson did this with Adam’s Passion but on a stage. Isn’t a film set a stage?

I have long compared slow films to painting, pointing out that in classic Slow Cinema the camera is static and there is little to no movement in any given scene. Apart from those slight movements, there is no difference between painting, photography and slow film. Which is why I believe that many slow films should be shown in museums and galleries instead of in cinemas. The screening location sets expectations, and the cinema house raises the wrong expectations so that viewers get frustrated. The same viewers would have less problems sitting through a slow film while in a gallery, simply because the setting raises different expectations. Stasis and slowness are perfectly acceptable in galleries, and, I believe, also in theatres.

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In some ways, painting, photography and cinema are not the only three art forms where boundaries are blurred. Adam’s Passion made me see that theatre plays a big role in this, too. Or can do. It very much depends on how it is done, I suppose. And is Adam’s Passion even a theatre play? This performance posed so many questions I don’t have answers for. But the biggest question of all was “What is cinema?” I challenge the notion that cinema is movement, recorded by a video camera. Cinema is not a recorded scene with actors and actresses, and scene changes. It is not “painting with light”. All of this is Adam’s Passion, but no one would describe it as a film. I wonder whether it might not be time to rethink our definitions of the art forms we think we are critics of. Or, perhaps, all of these art forms are just one. It is art, so does the distinction between them, if there is any, even matter?

Imburnal – Sherad Anthony Sanchez (2008)

If you’re done watching Lav Diaz’s long films and need a film to fix this problem, Sherad Anthony Sanchez’ three-and-a-half hour film Imburnal (2008) may be a good start. I wanted to see the film for a long time, and I have started it twice, I think. But for some reason I never finished watching it. It certainly wasn’t the quality of the film that had stopped me from going ahead.

I remember Diaz mentioning Sanchez in my interview with him; Sanchez as one of the few upcoming great directors in Philippine cinema. I can see why Diaz said this, even though I have only seen one film by him. But there is a feeling, a certain presence of the director, that makes it a very promising work in regards to the future. Imburnal is a rather different view on the Philippines than we know from Diaz’s films. Sanchez does not so much focus on the past and its effects on the present. His film is more an exclusive study of the present condition, with a view to the future. Sanchez focuses on the young; children, teenagers, who spend their free time in sewers. They smoke and drink whatever self-made mix they can come up with, inhale glue, and, seemingly their favourite past-time, have sex with whoever they can find.

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No, the film doesn’t draw a nice picture of the young in the Philippines. But the film is not so much only an image of the director’s country. It uses Filipino youngsters, while – perhaps unconsciously – telling a story of deprived young people all over the world, with little hope for the future, little education, maybe even little ambition. This is one thing in the film: you don’t see any of the characters at school. The film is a portrayal of youngsters in the streets and sewers without their being homeless. It looks like the chosen battleground where the young fool around until they find out what they want to do with their lives.

The dominant theme of sex in the film reminded me of a book I read years ago, which was as worrying as was watching the film. I can’t remember the book’s title, but it was written by someone working for a charity that supports teenagers from deprived families in Germany (yes, we’re speaking about the First World here). What became clear after only a few pages was the teenagers’ obsession with sex. And I’m not speaking of the normal “I need to discover what this is all about” phase. The underlying problem was that they had little else to do. Sex gave them a release from harsh life. It was an escape, a form of entertainment they could get for free. This went as far as 15 year olds with 50 sex partners. I couldn’t help thinking that this was exactly what I saw in Imburnal; the kind of “I’m bored, let’s have sex” type of thing. There’s plenty to say about this, but I want to move on to the aesthetics of the film.

Sanchez has created a rather interesting cinematic journey that does not necessarily make for an easy viewing. He employs long-takes, often beautifully framed. Others, on the other hand, need to be deciphered. He inserts still images, which confused me at times: Is this really a still image or is simply nothing moving in the frame? It’s not as easy as you think! The still images increased the felt slowness of the entire film. And so does the music, a melancholic tune that plays over quite a few scenes. The slow tune wasn’t a necessity, but it serves the mood well and reinforced my sorry feeling for what I saw.

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Sanchez – keen on playing with the viewers’ patience, you can tell – inserted a pause into his film. A literal pause. After about ninety minutes, the film cuts to black. A melancholic tune comes up, and then you sit and wait. And wait. And wait a little longer. I’m not sure how long I stared at the blank screen. Was it five minutes? Seven, perhaps? If I had watched this in cinema, that would have been the point of people leaving the auditorium. That is, if they had not been fed up with explicit sexual imagery of a teenager threesome in the sewers, masturbating guys (no, boys) on top of the extreme long-takes and the on and off use of absolute silence. The use of absolute silence strongly reminded me of Lav Diaz’s Florentina Hubaldo CTE. In this film, silence was an aspect of trauma. In Imburnal, I reckon the silence was simply the result of playing with different aesthetics.

I couldn’t figure out why Sanchez inserted the pause, but I sure liked his artistic endeavour. It added a real zen feeling to the otherwise rather unpleasant scenes (context-wise) before and after the break. Imburnal is surely an intimate film, in many ways. Not only in regards to the imagery. At times, the camera switches into a voyeuristic mode, positioning us as perhaps unwanted spectators. And then you can hear the breathing of the filmmaker/cinematographer in some scenes, which made me feel uncomfortable at times. I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it felt as though I was too close to the action. In any case, Sanchez is a director to look out for in future. I liked his play with aesthetics and this could have been only beneficial for his future projects.

Slow Art Cinema

This is a brief post to say that an article by me was published on the Slow Art Day blog. Some of you may remember the short article “A cinematic approach to Slow Art with Nadin Mai” from 2013, which Naomi Klein assembled based on a few questions. This article now goes a bit further than the original, and is a very basic (slow) investigation into the links between Slow Art and Slow Cinema, as I do not see them as separate entities. On the contrary. I don’t think we can study one without taking the other into consideration.

Unfortunately, I cannot reblog the post, so I have to redirect you to the Slow Art Day blog, where you can find my article. Happy reading, but do take your time with it!

Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness – Song Hwee Lim (2014)

In 2003, Michel Ciment coined the term “a cinema of slowness.” A year later, Jonathan Romney coined the now popular term “Slow Cinema.” It’s quite remarkable that it took over a decade before the first book on the phenomenon was published. I would have expected literature on the subject much earlier than this, but as Song Hwee Lim – I suppose, correctly – points out, Slow Cinema has been somewhat brushed aside by academics. Lim’s book is therefore a premiere. And a good one.

I should make clear that it is, in fact, not really a book about Slow Cinema. Rather, it is an examination of Tsai Ming-liang’s films through which we get to know the aesthetics of slowness. I find the book a success for two reasons. First, Lim has succeeded to put Slow Cinema on paper, which is a real achievement, because it must be extremely difficult to convey the feeling of slowness with words. Yet, his book manages to create a wonderfully authentic image of slow films in general, in of Tsai’s films in particular.

And this is the second reason: the book is an intriguing study of Tsai’s films. Tsai’s oeuvre has attracted writers before, and I do have one book about him in my shelf, a review of which I can put up later. But although these books are interesting, they cannot quite grasp and convey the Tsai-ness of his films. Only Lim’s book does so adequately, and it was a joy to read it. It made me want to re-watch all of Tsai’s films, but unfortunately some other (slow) films have priority at the moment.

There is perhaps another important point I should make. While Cinema of Slowness had been written by an academic, it’s surprisingly open. There is always the risk (and I had many of them in my hands during my research) that films are so utterly theorised that no one apart from academic experts, or even just the author him/herself, understand it. It’s one reason why this blog is the way it is, because Slow Cinema is a phenomenon mainly carried by the audience, often people who have little to do with Film Studies at a university. I personally find that this very fact requires us to make everything that is written accessible to the wider public.

Now, Lim’s book manages the balance between academic analysis and lay film-watching superbly. It’s detailed, but not dry, boring or even off-putting (as is the case with András Balínt Kovács’ book on Béla Tarr). Nor is the book jam-packed. As the first book on Slow Cinema, it could have been a compilation of all thoughts on Slow Cinema out there, basically a roundup of everything that can be said (again, as is the case on Kovacs’s book).

Instead, as strange as it may sound, the book is slow. Lim compiles a lot of material on slow films. Yet, he does not overwhelm the reader with too much information. On the contrary, he manages a smooth integration into an analysis of Tsai’s films, which makes for a smooth and slow reading without being hastened by the author through something that is inherently slow. I also had the rather astonishing experience that I agreed to everything. Before the publication of this book, there were so many things about Slow Cinema that vexed me. This blog was used to argue against those points, and, funnily enough, a lot of the things I have had in mind, appear in Lim’s book. It feels as though I have found a slow (soul) mate.

If you are a keen follower of Slow Cinema and the films of Tsai Ming-liang, this book is perhaps the strongest recommendation I can give you for the time being. It works both as a nice introduction to the phenomenon, as well as a lively but not tiring analysis of one of the most prolific representatives of Slow Cinema.

(Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness, by Song Hwee Lim, University of Hawai’i Press, now available on Amazon)