My third day at VIFF was the most exhausting yet, but also the most rewarding as a filmgoer. Three of the films I watched were utter revelations, and only one of them directed by someone who’s a household name. That’s the thing about global cinema: it nurtures some perspectives while challenging others. And it brings to life places you’ve never been to — and in certain cases, even the places you have.
Ahmad Abdalla’s Microphone is set in Alexandria, Egypt, a place I’ve never been to, but will surely do so now on account of the wonderful independent music scene and bustling energy it depicts. Microphone finds truth in self-expression — whether it’s your own truth or someone else’s — but it’s also about rediscovering home, community, and oh yes, music that quickens my pulse just thinking about it. Heavy metal, hip-hop, and soulful ska (I know, sounds like an oxymoron, right?) pierce through a landscape of political and cultural complacency, police brutality, and generational rifts, not to mention our heartstrings. Abdalla’s Alexandria is viewed through the prism of a perma-tourist (he grew up in Cairo), but as one member in the audience astutely remarked, it’s the Alexandria that very few people have ever had the opportunity to know. Whether that holds true is impossible to know, especially for a total outsider like me, but it also speaks to the subjectivity of what an “insider culture” should look like. What it sounds like is another matter entirely — and the music in Microphone crackles with such a red-hot intensity that it transcends these fussy labels altogether.
Youthful exuberance makes way for the vagaries of youth in world-class auteur Catherine Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty. Delightfully elusive, bitingly droll, and a fascinating look at how shapeless our ideas of mortality and timelessness have become, it’s no more a reimagined fairy tale as Pan’s Labyrinth is a children’s fantasy. Breillat’s taste in a classical aesthetic belies her wickedly absurdist sense of humor, as well as an ability to empathize with the growing pains experienced by young women anywhere. Her princess is a marvelous reconfiguring of feminist ideals, and an open-ended question mark about the impermanence (and impertinence) of reality. Fairy tales are timeless because we want them to be, just as the young people in Breillat’s films can feel like time is either their best friend, or their worst enemy.
Wasting time creatively is practically an occupation for the bored young people in Li Hongqi’s riotous Winter Vacation. Proving that Chinese comedy can be ironic, detached, and wholly affectionate (eat your heart out, Feng Xiaogang), Winter Vacation provides bucketfuls of laughs amidst long takes that build the suspense for each exquisitely timed non-sequitor and wry putdown. But my favorite moments in the film — other than a disgruntled child who gets all the best insults and deadpan facial expressions — all involve an attention to detail that is masterful in its lampooning of cinema verite. I’ve never seen anyone in China inspect one kuai bills to see if they’re counterfeit (it’s a laughable amount of change) or peel all the leaves off of a whole cabbage before buying it (and then proceed to take the discarded leaves), but they’re the kinds of surreal images that ring true anyways — because in China and the rest of the world, what isn’t expressed is oftentimes as funny as what is. Li Hongqi understands that, which makes him my new favorite Chinese filmmaker by a country mile.