London Film Festival 2015 Dispatch #3 - Waking Dreams

At a film festival, sticking to known names can prove a little tedious. After all, half the fun of film viewership is the act of discovery. That said, when a new film from someone as reliably impressive as Apichatpong Weerasethakul shows up, it takes a special kind of commitment to the pursuit of obscurity to skip it. This dispatch sees the return of two favourites (who share a talented young cinematographer in Diego Garcia), and the discovery of a new name, whose career is far from young and her talent far from unappreciated.

First, that pleasant surprise: Murmur of the Hearts, from Sylvia Chang. (A name who, it should be noted, dominated the festival, also acting in Jia Zhangke's Mountains May Depart and co-writing and co-leading Johnnie To's Office.) A very moving, emotionally intelligent, romantic melodrama of a type not often seen anymore, Chang's first directorial effort in seven years looks at difficulties of communication and how relationships come apart. The dreamlike, graceful opening sets the stage and structure - a mother tells her two children a story, one that has stayed with them into adulthood. Chang then switches elliptically between this shared past and their separate presents, using the storytelling mechanism as a link. The girl (Isabella Leong), now a painter in a struggling relationship with a uncommunicative, psychological stunted boxer (Joseph Chang); and the boy (Lawrence Ko), a tour guide on a remote Taiwanese island Lyudao, distanced, inexpressive and lonely. Drawing in broad, emotive strokes, Chang explores the conflicts and shifts, both seismic and minute, that have served to distance these people; then crosses countries and chronologies to draw a wide, sprawling arc that brings them all together.

Chang's dreamlike visuals, an entrancing Tsai Ming Liang inspired palette of rain distorted Taipei neons and misty Lyudao greys and greens; and high-emotional register performances from Leong and Ko elevate an overwritten, needlessly complex script. Exchanges between the characters throughout the film are stuttered, the character's shared inability to express their individual yearnings pushing them towards looks and gestures instead. When it all comes together, and the characters get somewhere towards the resolution or reunion they separately desire, Murmur of the Hearts carries real emotional heft, the weight of the accumulative power of Chang's pocketed moments and memories meaning the importance of everything unsaid is understood, and the impact deeply felt.

Less revelatory, a much more ordinary film - also featuring a stunted romance between a boxer and an artist - the (un)imaginatively titled Box, from Romanian director Florin Șerban. For much of the film's runtime, Rafael (screen debutant Rafael Florea) stalks Cristina (Hilda Peter), silently, lustfully, and indeed very creepily following her around Bucharest's back alleys with a muted persistence. Șerban apes the stalks from Jose Guerin's In The City of Sylvia, but misses what made them significant there, the sense of connection and history.

In between, their characters and separate lives are fleshed out unsatisfyingly. He, a talented young boxer groomed by a coach, who, surprise surprise, doesn't have his best intentions in mind; and she, a stage actor creatively frustrated by a uninspiring project and unhelpful director. She goes home to an unappreciative husband; and he a distanced, overly masculine father. Neither communicate much, little happens. These runarounds should broaden a sense of the characters lives apart from each other, perhaps expressing the lack of fulfilment in their personal and professional lives that leads them together and lend a sense of believability to the idea that Cristina could somehow fall for her mawkish, admittedly handsome, stalker. Instead, they seem like filler surrounding a central affair that spends an overly protracted period in gestation. To the director's credit, after considerable tedium the payoff the ending provides is gratifying, Șerban using a callback to a significant piece of music to conclude his film excellently. The preceding ninety minutes could have benefitted from similar directorial presence however, Șerban mistaking distance for subtlety, meaning the resultant film is frustratingly inert.

A much better balancer of inertia and activity, Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro brought his captivating debut August Winds to the festival last year. This year he returns with a similarly subtle, confident film; the wonderfully titled (and realised) Neon Bull. In a sharply observed, unassuming film, Mascaro, with cinematographer Diego Garcia, brings an almost documentary style approach to fiction. His portrait of a group of nomadic bull handlers draws upon the minutiae of their experience yet avoids becoming mundane by focusing heavily on the bodies in play, both human and animal. Like with his debut, Mascaro manages to control mood, tone and rhythm with a seemingly effortless restraint, eking out the humour, compassion and beauty from the most modest of moments.

Focusing on the physicality of his characters, Mascaro, despite the brashly masculine world he is exploring, establishes a representation of gender with considerable nuance. Besides the bull work, his protagonist’s true passion is for fashion, sewing lavish costumes and scribbling lingerie designs over nude photos in his spare time. In the film’s most brilliant, sensual scene, the culmination of this conflation of gender positioning sees him having impassioned, lusty sex with a heavily pregnant cohort in the textiles factory she guards at night, the tough shell of her guard’s uniform slipped away to reveal her vulnerability and beauty. Steamy, sensitive, and captured with a Weerasethakulian sense of languidity, it is the perfect moment of catharsis in a film that to this point had been quiet and undramatic. Mascaro's first two features have demonstrated a director with a real command over his craft, an effortless ability to depict ordinary situations with vivacity and sensuality. Whatever he does next will certainly gain the wider attention he deserves.

This considered, it is no huge surprise then to notice that Apichatpong Weerasethakul's new one Cemetery of Splendour was also shot by Diego Garcia. Recommended by Carlos Reygadas with the explanation that “he meditates, you’ll like him," Diego filled in for Weerasethakul's usual cameraman Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who had been “stolen by Miguel Gomes to make Arabian Nights.” (Hearing all this doesn't exactly help to diminish any apprehensions that the world of international art cinema might be some self-serving boys club, but it is a little amusing regardless.)

Anyway, Cemetery of Splendour, a "simple film," to quote the ever humble Apichatpong, is also a tremendous, profoundly moving one, and as brilliant as any he has made. A paean to his hometown, Apichatpong's first film set in Khon Kaen is perhaps also his most melancholic. Split in half narratively, Cemetery of Splendour has Apichatpong's regular muse Jenjira Pongpas drifting, between states of consciousness, as well around the town's sleepy locales. First seen tending to inexplicably comatose soldiers in a hospital converted from the school she grew up in, the second half has her accompanying an awoken one, in person then, movingly, through the presence of a medium.

In a gorgeous, tranquil film that feels like a culmination of the style, themes and ideas of the director's previous work, Apichatpong plays with his form gently, working off the notion as cinema as an opiate by introducing a film as languorous and as ASMR inducing as any he has made to date with the instruction that "its ok to sleep during." As if to play up the unreality of filmmaking, the soldiers are treated with incandescent light-eminating poles stationed above their beds, acting like camera filters and bathing the actors in radiating neon washes. In the film's most beautiful, somnambulistic sequence Apichatpong fades from these hues to similarly intoned ones in the town's denigrated shopping mall, abstracting the two locations by double-exposing them together, exemplifying the mastery with which the film drifts transiently between states of place and being. In the next moment, the newly woken soldier notes that his senses are heightened. "I can sense all the smells in this market, I can feel the temperature of the lights."

More beguiling, serene and hypnotic than any film Apichatpong has made before; in Cemetery of Splendour it is never quite clear, even by the haunting, suggestive concluding sequence, whether Jenjira is dreaming or not as ghosts appear before her in human form and the narcoleptic soldiers pass in and out of consciousness. At one point, she is told that in order to wake up and see things as they are, she must open her eyes as wide as humanly possible, something referenced by the heartbreaking ending. In a nation suffering from a statewide malaise, a sleeping sickness that suffocates its citizens and silences its artists, no amount of pinching or eye-widening is going to help. Apichatpong's last film to be made in Thailand operates in many contradictory states, realistic and dreamy, hopeful and melancholic, and is a tragic, therapeutic farewell to a place he can no longer remain in.

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