SIFF 2021: Wisdom Tooth

Wisdom Tooth | IFFR

In his debut film Wisdom Tooth, Liang Ming blends a crime thriller with a coming-of-age story all told through the lens of poverty. Accompanied by gorgeous photography of a snowy northern China fishing village, the film leans heavily on its eclectic cast to tie everything together.

Xi (Xingchen Lyu) is an undocumented teenager who works as a maid and lives with her brother Liang (Xiaoliang Wu) whom she loves deeply. After a mix-up in the public showers, they meet Qing (Jiajia Wang) who quickly becomes an older sister figure to Xi and love interest for Liang. The three along with the siblings’ friend Dong (Weishen Wang) must navigate their existence when an oil spill poisons the fishing population impacting each character’s wellbeing in interconnected ways. This complex narrative is all conveyed through Xi’s young impressionistic eyes and reflects her youthful, scattered focus.

Liang Ming bit off a lot with his first feature. Wisdom Tooth attempts to balance multiple genres with tangled plot points and four unique co-leads. This results in an expectedly messy film, though messy in this case is not synonymous with bad. Using Xi as the film’s focal point. The sporadic energy that comes from being so young supports the convoluted premise. Even when side plotlines are dropped without any conclusion, it is because Xi’s attention moved elsewhere. As the film progresses, its point of view is eventually entirely within Xi’s perspective. Latter scenes give way to her daydreams net displays them as reality. Eventually, Xi’s comprehension of life loses grounding to deliver an intense, dreamy climax.

As an actor himself (Shadow Days 2014), it makes sense that Ming Liang’s greatest strength as a director is focusing on his characters. All four leads standout through the multilayered plot, but Xingchen Lyu’s Xi is what holds the film together. While her character did not bring structure to the muddled film, it did provide a purpose to the chaos.

SIFF 2021: Strawberry Mansion

Strawberry Mansion' Blurs Dystopian Dreams Of Monetization, Consumption &  Love Into A Quirky Lo-Fi Surreal Swirl [Sundance Review]

Written by, starring, and directed by Alison Rich, The Other Morgan is the short film that was programmed with Strawberry Mansion. Centered around an absurd premise, the reason Rich’s character is the “other” Morgan, the short blends a twee tone with enjoyable character acting to create a largely entertain film. The ludicrous premise of the short makes it a well chosen pairing for the following feature.

Taking heavy influence from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney created their own take on the surrealist portrayal of bureaucracy in Strawberry Mansion. Set in the 1980’s idea of the near future, the film playfully blends live action with stop motion and animation to create a unique look for the dream heavy feature.

James Preble (played by director Kentucker Audley) works for the government to audit people who have not paid the taxes on their dreams. The eccentric Arabella, or Bella for short, (Penny Fuller) alerts Preble that she has never paid taxes on her dreams, so that he will come out to her home for an audit. Upon arriving at her remote location, Preble is greeted with over 2,000 VHS tapes each containing one of Bella’s dreams. While meticulously viewing each of them, Preble becomes enamored with Bella’s younger dream self (Grace Glowicki) and eventually stumbles into a conspiracy theory within the dream state.

Focusing so much on dreams, Strawberry Mansion leans heavily into a style above substance hierarchy. The plot may be simple to a fault, but the sensory experience more than makes up for it. The production design of each dream looks artificial and cheap but in a way that is endearing. From Preble’s all pink one room home to Bella’s sound studio field, the artificiality enhances the dream aesthetic rather than detract from it. While the mise en scène helps to sell the directors’ unique world, Dan Deacon’s perfect, haunting synthesizer score brings everything together.

Implementing significant homages to many of the 1980’s trippier features, the Strawberry Mansion nails the most important aspects in creating a surrealist cult film. Any widespread adoption or commercial success may be out of the film’s reach, but headlined by a perfect score, it will fit nicely into midnight, cult screenings for years to come.

SIFF 2021: The Earth is Blue as an Orange

The Earth Is Blue as an Orange - Archive - Zurich Film Festival

In The Earth is Blue as an Orange, director Iryna Tsilyk provides her twist on the current events documentary. Ostensibly exploring the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Tsilyk focuses on the intimate implications of the war rather than reasons behind it. The Earth is Blue as an Orange offers no explanation of the terrible situation engulfing its subject’s lives but paints a picture of the life changing impact it has on a family attempting to live the most normal life that they can.

Anna is a single mother who along with her four children lives in a small town near Donbass, Ukraine which is under constant bombings. To maintain morale, she and Mira, her aspiring cinematographer daughter, write and shoot an original movie in their hometown. The shelled remains of buildings around the town provide interesting on location sets, and the tanks patrolling the city make capturing dystopian b-roll as simple as pointing a camera out the window. The family project helps them make the best of their unenviable predicament.

The Earth is Blue as an Orange represents the change towards a more Gonzo style of documentary filmmaking that has become increasingly popular. By foregoing the traditional hallmarks of many documentary films, Tsilyk delivers a feature that may be devoid of hard facts but tells a personal story. While the viewer may have no better understanding of what the conflict is about, through Anna and her children’s struggles, the impact of the conflict is clear. This stylistic choice treats a documentary as film rather than a news report, and in doing so creates a film with a longer lasting impression.

While the narrative film created by the family is never shown, its meta quality in context with The Earth is Blue as an Orange is readily apparent. Anna and Mira’s film is about a family coping with living in a war zone. While Tsilyk may be literally creating a documentary about the pair’s film production, the fictional film itself is a coping mechanism for living during the conflict. The line between each movie blurs until they are one in the same: a unique and extremely cinema literate package.

SIFF 2021: Sweat

Sweat' Review | Hollywood Reporter

Sweat is Swedish director Magnus von Horn’s take on influencer culture. The three-day character study of a fictional workout trainer with 600,000 followers plays with themes of artificiality and parasocial relationships that affect many real influencers. More than just the personal aspects, Sweat looks into the potential extreme repercussions of having a personality so public facing.

Sylwia (Magdalena Kolesnik) is a fitness guru and influencer who hosts packed workout sessions, sells workout tapes, and advertises the products of her many sponsors. After giving a recorded workout in a mall one day, she meets with her manager who relays some concerns one of her sponsors had with her uncharacteristically personal post the night prior that had since gone viral. She reminds him that she has always had carte blanche with her social media accounts and he agrees. This singular post, however, portends the increased breaking of character caused by the events in the rest of the film.

Von Horn makes some risky direction decisions that pay off well in Sweat. Sylwia’s constant need to film herself with a phone no more than an arm’s reach away is paralleled in the cinematography with uncomfortably tight closeups. These shots are held extreme enough that, as Sylwia moves, the camera loses focus on her reflecting the loss of self that she experiences through her constant vlogging. Small decisions like this set the groundwork for a film exploring how cracks can form under the constant need to wear a mask. While these moments hint at genius, they are regrettably lost in the screenplay’s implementation of a somewhat standard stalker plot which moves Sylwia’s character in a direction antithetical to the smaller decisions.

There is a great film somewhere in Sweat. The moments where Sylwia’s perfect exterior cracks from the day-to-day grind of her chosen profession are personal and revelatory. These combined with the unique cinematography give a glimpse into what the film could have been. Unfortunately, the more narratively conventional plot points result in a safer though less interesting film.

SIFF 2021: Waikiki

Waikiki — Urbanworld

Played with Waikiki as part of the festival, was PIIKSI/Huia the short film from Joshua Manyheads and Cian Elyse White. The short shows Sophie Williams as she auditions for her nation’s top ballet academy and blends traditional pointe ballet with dancing channeled from her indigenous roots. The film shares these themes with the paired feature propping up the message of both.

Christopher Kahunahana’s debut feature film opens with a seemingly picture-perfect scene. Many tourists are sitting at dinner watching a live hula performance in front of a picturesque Hawaiian landscape. This artificial performance provides unrealistic starting point for a film that dives into the commodification of indigenous people and the shared trauma that they experience.

After the hula performance ends, Kea (Danielle Zalopany), one of the dancers, leaves to apply for an apartment before returning to the van in which she is currently living. After resting some, she prepares herself to go out as an escort to make the last money that she needs for the security deposit. This last job ends violently when Kea’s ex Branden (Jason Quinn) shows up and aggressively removes her from the karaoke bar and her john. Angry and scared, Kea breaks away to her van, and while frantically driving hits Wo (Peter Shinkoda) an unhoused person. Feeling guilty, Kea takes Wo into her van and to keep him safe over the next few days. When she is denied the apartment and loses her van Wo ends up being her guide forward.

At about the two thirds mark, Waikiki breaks away from a traditional narrative and begins to earn the Lynchian moniker that some have bestowed upon it. The film proceeds with frequent quick cuts between different times and realities, all of which are used to convey trauma both personal and cultural. The dizzying dream like direction of the extended climax brings significant depth to the film’s exploration of indigenous people’s place in the current world and will likely require repeat viewings to fully comprehend.

While Waikiki may become inaccessible to many as the narrative breaks away to a freeform surrealist experience, the result is a nuanced film that explores its serious themes in a unique manner. The terror of Kea’s traumatic breakdown is perfectly juxtaposed with the paradise setting to reflect upon the impact of colonization. Kahunahana delivers and excellent first feature raising an underrepresented groups voice.

SIFF 2021: Beans

Beans' Review | Hollywood Reporter

Packaged with Beans was the New Zealand short film Bub. The short observes a young boy who finds himself alone in his grandmother’s house. The short is cute, and the young boy’s acting is extremely realistic. Beyond that, though, there was little substance to the short. Bud is an interesting sequence, but it does not stand alone even as a short film.

Mohawk director Tracey Deer drew upon her personal experiences in creating her narrative feature debut. Set amid the Oka Crisis, Beans is a coming-of-age story heavily influenced by external situations. The film’s themes of racism and violence permeate into the pubescent girl’s demeanor and alter her personality more than hormones along ever could. In using such a volatile setting, Deer explores the impact of hate on the most innocent.

Tekahentahkhwa (Kiawentiio), who goes by Beans, is a 12-year-old Mohawk girl who begins the film interviewing for a prestigious prep school off her reservation. After presumably bombing the interview, she and her mother Lily (Rainbow Dickerson) return to the reservation and participate in an early protest against the Quebec government’s seizing of Mohawk land to build a golf course. Things take a turn towards the violent and Beans is rushed home. Over the next weeks, Beans’s natural preteen rebellion bring her into close contact with the fighting. Under the constant reminder of white supremacy from the ongoing crisis, her coming-of-age is corrupted into something significantly more sinister.

Beans is not a subtle movie. The white Quebecers are over the top in their expressions of hatred. They decline to speak in dog whistles and instead spit blatant white supremacist ideas in the Mohawk people’s faces. Similarly, the impact that these events have on Beans are exaggerated. Her immediate violent turn is extreme and not realistic in the most literal sense. For Deer though, the exaggerations are the point. Indigenous stories are seldom told, and indigenous treaties are frequently broken to little coverage. Beans may wear its message on its sleeve, but when no one listens to a quiet telling of a people’s story, they have no choice but to yell.

In a world without context, Beans as a film screams its message rather than unveil it through the cinematic language. However, Tracey Deer knows that her people’s story has gone unheard for so long that an aggressive storytelling stance must seem necessary to her. When there is so much ignorance otherwise, sometimes a blunt instrument is the most effective.

SIFF 2021: Slalom

Slalom movie review & film summary (2021) | Roger Ebert

For her feature film making debut, Charlène Favier chose to tackle a sensitive though timely topic. Slalom focuses on the intimate relationship formed between a mentor and mentee, and how this power dynamic can be exploited by the mentor. The film blends slow and sometimes arduous scenes of increasing abuse with loud and kinetic ski races for a perfectly balanced feature.

Lyz Lopez (Noée Abita) enrolls in a strict skiing academy where the coach Fred (Jérémie Renier) immediately pegs her as the student with the greatest potential. He dedicates extra time to help Lyz train, grooming her to be a champion and also just grooming her. From the moment she arrives, he finds ways to touch her, all under the guise of a trainer keeping the trainee’s muscles warm and ready. Lyz being only 15 and completely separated from her mother as a supportive figure stays stoic as his advances intensify. She tells herself that winning the European Championship is worth any trauma.

Slalom is an extremely singular story. Everything important to the plot is either done by or to Lyz. Because of this, it is imperative that the lead actress delivers a solid performance, and Abita does just that. The range of demeanors that her character adorns requires an extensive amount of precise body language and the puffy snow attire complicates the ask even more. Through all the acting challenges, Abita succeeds and then some. In less than 100 minutes, she transforms from timid upon enrolling, to arrogant after her first major victory, and finally to someone completely dissociate from the world due to the trauma she has endured.

Headlined by a superb performance from up-and-actress Noée Abita, Slalom has a lot going for it. Between Abita’s acting, the extraordinary ski cinematography, and a screenplay that handles the subject with the grace it deserves, Slalom is an excellent representation of an unfortunately common occurrence.

SIFF 2021: Get the Hell Out

Get the Hell Out Review: A Taiwanese Zombie Movie About Braindead MPs |  IndieWire

Packaged with Get the Hell Out was Mom Fight a fun short from Mickey Finnegan Staring Jennifer Khoe and Michaela McAllister as two moms fighting over the last action figure that their kids have been begging for. What follows is a well-choreographed playful fight scene stuffed with innovative weapons created from other toys. It was well paired with the feature as a preparation for Get the Hell Out’s exaggerated but playful violence.

New filmmaker I.-Fan Wang bursts onto the scene with Get the Hell Out, an over-the-top zombie comedy. Tagged as a political satire, as many zombie films are, Wang enhances the Romero standard with buckets of fake blood akin to an Argento and videogame antics in the vein of Edgar Wright. All these aspects mix into an overstimulating whole.

In hopes of preventing a dangerous chemical plant from being constructed over her hometown, Hsiung (Megan Lai) manipulates Wang (Bruce Ho) a submissive security guard to get her in the room for discussions about the plant. Before her plan can come to fruition, the chemical plant explodes spreading a form of rabies that transforms the infected into zombies. It is only a matter of time before the zombies break into parliament and all hell breaks loose.

I.-Fan Wang’s approach to the making Get the Hell Out was to amplify the style above all else. Each character introduced gets their own freeze frame with their name and title/nickname scrawled in giant letters. The gore is over the top in a wonderfully campy way. During major fights he adds flashing videogame overlays to accentuate the gravitas of the moment. None of these decisions are in and of themselves bad, but they should be sparingly as moments of flare. Get the Hell Out does not appreciate the call for self-control and instead fills every frame with a flashing overlay. This combined with the constant shaky cam creates a nauseating experience.

Get the Hell Out set out to be a balls-to-the-wall comedy horror experience, and while it succeeded at that, it was not without fault. At times I felt close to getting sick watching this film. The sickness was not because of the excessive gore which I found more playful than anything, but because of the throw everything at the wall mentality of the direction. A steadier camera would go a long way to fixing this issue, but some restraint in the effects would likewise be helpful. Hopefully in Wang’s next film he will mature and make something just as fun but easier on the eyes.

SIFF 2021: Little Girl

RIDM 2020: Petite Fille –

As governments across the globe are taking steps to deny trans children the medical care that can save them from enduring serious dysphoric damage, Sébastien Lifshitz offers his documentary Little Girl as a positive, humanizing counter argument. To capture the personal and emotional turning point in Sasha’s life, the documentary is shot intimately. While the mom will occasionally speak directly to the camera to fill in her thought process, the camera also lingers on Sasha playing and just being a normal little girl.

From as early as age three, Sasha has told her parents that she was going to be a girl when she grew up. Now at age eight, they have decided that telling her no and making her cry is only doing more harm than good. They allow her to be herself during family times. Her bedroom transforms into a little girl’s, and her closet fills with dresses. Unfortunately, for the time being, she is forced to pretend to be a boy for both school and ballet class. The dissonance that this is plaguing Sasha results in her mother taking her to the doctor to discuss transition options.

Like with my earlier review for Valentina, this is where I admit that as a trans woman myself, the rest of the review is going to end up extremely personal. I am incapable of assessing this subject on a purely objective level. The first meeting between Sasha, her mother, and her new doctor is some of the most emotional storytelling I have ever seen. The camera holds a tight closeup of Sasha’s face. Her timid, single syllable answers to the doctor need to be flushed out by her mother so she can nod in agreement. The tears that well up in her eyes are a mixture of pain from admitting that pretending to be a boy in public is emotionally scaring and joy as the doctor assures her that being trans is normal and that she can present as a girl full time. The mixture of pain and relief in this moment resonates as a fulcrum for the rest of Sasha’s journey.

Medical documents in hand, Sasha enters another relatable step in transitioning: self-actualization. In the shots of her in ballet or school previously, Sasha seldom smiled. Up until receiving the doctors note she only looked happy while at home being herself. Once she received her medical form and started being herself full time, she was always beaming. This moment is special for any trans person. Going out in public even for the most menial tasks without worrying about being seen is liberating. By capturing these moments, the positive impact on Sasha’s life could not be clearer.

My personal bias on the topic is going to heavily bias my feelings towards this film. If I were to say anything negative it would be that the score is unnecessarily melodramatic at times and mixed a little loud. That small misgiving aside, Little Girl was an amazing and important documentary for this time. It clearly shows the life affirming impact that acceptance and appropriate medical care can have for trans youths.

SIFF 2021: Bebia, à Mon Seul Désir

Bebia, à mon seul désir' Review - Variety

In her first feature – Bebia, à Mon Seul Désir – Juja Dobrachkous explores themes of tradition and familial ties. Shot in brilliant black and white photography, the film relies heavily on local ritual to illustrate a young woman’s emotional struggle with the family that she abandoned.

Upon the passing of her grandmother Bebia (Guliko Gurgenidze), the estranged teen Ariadna (Anastasia Davidson) returns home to take part in the funeral. While undergoing preparations, for the ceremony, Ariadna is confronted with her role in Georgian burial tradition. As the youngest member of the family, it is her job to run a thread from the deathbed to the burial sight so that Bebia’s soul can find its way to the body’s resting place. For Ariadna, this means a 25-kilometer trek through untouched woods and hills. Ariadna being both largely removed from the family and a non-believer in the religious aspect is reluctant to go, but eventually resigns when subjected to enough pressure.

The standout of the film is without question the gorgeous black and white cinematography of the Georgian countryside shot by Veronika Solovyeva. The vastness of many of the shots reflect the smallness of the young woman both literally and figuratively. The extended scenes of silent walking through these shots while meticulously unspooling thread creates a hypnotic effect. These moments perfectly transition into flashbacks where Ariadna grapples with her relationship with Bebia. The interplay between walking and flashback work in perfect unison, but the same interplay that is present in the time before and after her meditative hike are less successful and lengthy.

There is a lot to appreciate in Dobrachkous’s debut feature. Bebia, à Mon Seul Désir is full of mature visual flare, and the stronger moments display advanced storytelling techniques and a deft hand for implementing metaphor. While the film was a bit overlong, and the less essential moments could have used some significant tightening, the good overshadows the lesser parts. As a filmmaker, Dobrachkous shows significant promise and will likely be an arthouse staple for years to come.