An Agoraphobe in China: Dispatches from the IFFAM

Musings and mini-reviews from the third International Film Festival and Awards, Macao.

MACAO, CHINA — The voice that comes over the PA in the inter-airport tram with the English translation is — as are most of the English translation voices I will hear over my week in China — soothing, British-accented, and female, reminiscent of a Much Ado About Nothing/Remains of the Day era Emma Thompson. She tells us that the next stop will be the ferry, which will take us from the Hong Kong International Airport across the water to Macao, our destination. She seems to know that I’ve been on a plane for a very long time, that I’m feeling confused, that the directions for this transition, which I carefully printed out and placed in an easily-accessible backpack pocket, have been entirely erroneous; this is not my forte, world traveling. I’m much more comfortable in a darkened theater, not talking to strangers. The pseudo-Emma Thompson voice assures me that everything has been and will be fine. She even offers up a bit of advice: “Please hold the hand rail during the whole journey.”

Journey. Her brilliant British diction rolls over the word in a way that clams me further. Jouuurney. I’m on a Journey. I’ve come halfway around the world… to sit in a darkened theater, not talking to strangers. I’ve come to spend eight days covering the International Film Festival and Awards, Macao — IFFAM for short.

Usually, when I go to a film festival, I bring you back a sack of capsule reviews, sometimes ranked, sometimes just haphazardly grouped, but that’s it — mini-reviews, titles duly bolded and italicized, things you should keep an eye out for (or, perhaps, avoid) in the weeks and months to come. It didn’t seem appropriate to do that here, to treat these films the same as those I saw in Toronto or Austin or Wichita, to act as though I hadn’t seen them in a place millions of people travel every year to do anything but sit in a darkened theater, not talking to strangers. But I also don’t want to write one of those obnoxious Harry Knowles personal essay reviews that spends more time on what I had for breakfast than the direction of the motion picture. Who wants that?

So I’ll try my best to find something somewhere in between. Bear with me. I’ve never done this before. Any of it.

*

The festival’s opening night film is Green Book, and it’s frankly a little rude to embarrass us Americans like that, right off the bat. This creakily antiquated piffle is, of course, an odds-on favorite for awards consideration, and it’s exactly the kind of movie that is about racism, yet has nothing to say about racism, that the Oscars love (see Crash, Driving Miss Daisy, Mississippi Burning, In the Heat of the Night, etc.). In scene after scene, Viggo Mortensen’s comically overcooked Bronx Italian guy — it’s a seriously bad performance, a neighborhood guy caricature that wouldn’t pass muster in a high-school talent show sketch — observes racist behavior, is maybe shocked or maybe not, and then the scene ends. The pedestrian script has nothing to say about these incidents beyond “look, racism, sure was unfortunate”; the presumption is that a 2018 audience will be just as shocked. And Mortensen’s character is granted no real evolution or complexity; he’s given a couple moments of mildly racist behavior early on, but the filmmakers are afraid to make him really racist because a) his son co-wrote the script, and b) he has to be likable, because he has to be our entry point. God forbid it were the black guy.

The other high-profile American entry fared better, but not much. And yes, it’s sort of asinine to find yourself at a festival halfway around the world and spend two hours seeing a movie like Mary, Queen of Scots that you can see at home, but y’know what, the media screenings in New York were at inopportune times, the screening in Macau was at a convenient time, and here we are. Not that I would’ve missed much; this awkward mash-up of period costume drama and girl-power manifesto is handsomely mounted and all, but despite generous doses of buttoned-up eroticism and anachronistic wokeness, it’s just kind of dull. Saoirse Ronan is impeccable (unsurprisingly), but Margot Robbie doesn’t get to do much more than rail and fume, and they don’t even get a scene together until the bitter end. By then, it’s too little, too late.

“There’s literally nothing to look forward to in the New Year,” mum notes. “Why are we going?” It’s a question everyone probably asks themselves over the course of Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, the bristling new comedy/drama from writer/director Ben Wheatley, making the unexpected transition from the shoot-‘em-up of Free Fire to something more in a Mike Leigh mode (complete with credited contributions by the cast). It finds an extended family gathering to ring in the new year at a fancy estate rented by the title character, the son who’s acquired financial success and a large chip on his shoulder; everyone there is on edge and comes armed with complaints, and that’s before the estranged screw-up brother turns up. Wheatley’s intelligent script carefully lines its disasters and conflicts up like planes on a runway, and creates as many crashes as possible, and though it’s certainly a familiar story, his blunt style –—using jagged cutting patterns to smash scenes together in fits and starts — gives it an extra edge.

*

The flight is 16 hours. It could have been worse, far worse — this was a direct flight from JFK to Hong Kong, so I don’t mean to complain. But there’s a certain kind of delirium that sets in once you’ve been in an airplane seat for longer than a sleep cycle, particularly when you have a difficult time sleeping on planes, as I do. The flight left New York at one in the morning and arrived in Hong Kong, after going through 13 time zones, a date line, and the 16-hour flight itself, at about 5:30 the next morning, a day and a half after departure, somehow? But because we were in darkness the entire time, and I had only slept sporadically, I found myself in a weird walking fever dream state that “jet lag” didn’t seem to properly summarize.

The hotel was lovely, a (according to Google) five-star affair with a spa and a swimming pool and a casino, none of which, of course, were used by me. But it also had one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever slept in, and I did so quite a bit — the main shift for film critics who become parents is you start looking at film festivals as an opportunity to catch up on sleep.

This, ultimately, became the dilemma of the trip. I was provided accommodations by the festival, and transportation to its venues — this is the time to disclose that, right? That my flight and hotel were paid for? Because that definitely happened — but sort of left to fend for myself otherwise, to see sights and take in local culture without speaking the language or really knowing how to get around, or where things were. And meanwhile, there’s a comfortable bed in a hotel room. It’s very tempting to just stay there, or at least stay there until the inner voice screaming “YOU’RE IN ASIA, FOR GOD’S SAKE, GO SEE ASIA” guilts you into going outside.

*

Chinese director Qui Sheng’s debut feature Suburban Birds is a confident, compelling piece of work. He first focuses on a team of surveyors, investigating an outbreak of mysteriously tilted and caving buildings. But then the film unexpectedly pivots to follow a group of neighborhood school kids, immersing us in their relationships and frustrations (the sensitivity with which Sheng handles this story’s gay subtext is particularly striking). He then glides back to the original narrative, just as casually, but there are sly little intersections throughout the rest of the picture, reminders of how patterns of behavior and interaction are set early, and rarely waver. Sheng works in a muted key, treading at a deliberate pace and using Academy ratio and flat zooms, yet crafting a work that is emotionally riveting throughout.

The Outsiders is an adaptation, not of the S.E. Hinton novel (or the Coppola film it inspired), but a 2004 Taiwanese miniseries that was, I’m told, something of a sensation on these shores. You can certainly tell it was adapted from wider source material — it smashes in a whole lot of plot — and an older work, as its third act takes a deeply upsetting turn into (thankfully, hopefully) now-passé “fridging” territory. There’s a lot to admire before then — the performers are likable, the camerawork is stylish, and if the story is old hat, it’s still undeniably compelling, the kind of good girl/bad boy romance that keeps getting made because you’re always going to root for its heroes. And that’s why the back half-hour is such a betrayal; it prompts a brutality and heaviness that this lightweight material can’t shoulder.

Fly by Night is commercial director Zahir Omar’s first feature, and it feels very much like the first feature by a commercial director: a good-looking riff on other, better movies. It’s well-crafted, to be sure, with an A+ car chase and a handful of impressive flourishes (I liked the scene where a bar confrontation’s escalation is illustrated with a rundown of expenses incurred). But this story of an airport taxi scam gone awry is populated by tough-guy caricatures rather than fully realized characters — a quality gap done no favors by several subpar performances — and by the time it arrives at a Mexican stand-off in the desert, Omar has long stopped pretending it’s anything we haven’t seen before.

Liu Jie’s Baby is tough and uncompromising, but I couldn’t look away from it. Yang Mi is startlingly good as an 18-year-old woman whose life is falling apart as she’s exiting the foster car system, so she becomes obsessed with a very sick baby at the hospital where she works — a child in whom she clearly sees herself (she suffered a similar sickness), and chooses to try and save rather than fixing herself. It is, as you’d imagine, bleak stuff, rendered in a flat, realist (though undeniably effective) style by writer/director Jie. And it’s most effective in its back half, when the film’s narrow point-of-view opens up, to grant a thorny humanity to the baby’s weeping father, as well as our heroine’s kind friend. This movie is just gutting, but it’s done with force and genuine emotion.

*

A couple of days into the festival, as if aware that this bunch of Yanks and Europeans weren’t going to take any initiative of their own, the festival reps put us on a bus to go look at old churches and town squares. Our guide told us all about the city’s history, how it had been a Portuguese territory until 1999, when it was handed off to China. She told us about the signature cuisine and about religious and language make-ups. We nodded and dutifully took pictures, which most of us will show to bored relatives back home. I’m showing mine to you:

Most of the other pictures I took were of food, so yes, when I wasn’t hiding in my hotel room, I was that American abroad, taking artfully arranged pictures of my tabletop, determining which Instagram filter brought out the shadings of my exquisite, cultured meal just so. I ate a few fancy meals, all of which were reasonably priced (once I got over the sticker shock of the conversion rate, in which one U.S. dollar is roughly eight Hong Kong/Macao dollars, and thus it isn’t strange that your fruit drink is $38). The best ones, at risk of also being that American abroad, were the ones I had at tiny, out-of-the-way noodle shops, where I ate a giant bowl of delicious noodles, beef, and broth for about six bucks USD. Those made me glad I’d left the hotel.

*

Diamantino opens with a charming scene in which its hero, soccer superstar Diamantino Matamouros (Carloto Cotta) explaining how he executes a goal, a process that involves tuning out everyone but himself… and “the fluffy puppies,” cotton candy-like imaginary doggies that fill the field and the screen. Directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt seem to be establishing a light, slightly silly tone for this story of the childlike athlete’s spiritual journey after a crushing failure, but they end up throwing so many elements into the stew, it curdles. There are moments here and there that work, but the mixture of fairy tale storytelling, real-world violence, slapstick comedy, and social commentary, while ambitious, is ultimately unsustainable. The fluffy puppies are awfully cute, though.

School’s Out opens with a teacher opening the classroom window, gazing at the blue sky outside, and then leaping right out. What follows is a bit of a bait-and-switch; a substitute is brought in to take over his classes, with special focus on a tight-knit group of “Intellectually Advanced Children,” and we settle in for an earnest tale of a teacher who struggles for, but eventually wins, their respect. This… is not that. Co-writer/director Sébastien Marnier slyly situates his protagonist as the outsider who can’t quite make his way in, and who begins to go a touch mad, augmenting his paranoia with a healthy dose of nightmare imagery — and setting the table for a genuinely unnerving, anything-goes conclusion.

The Indonesian rom-com Aruna and Her Palate concerns a single gal (Dian Sastrowardoyo) who takes a culinary trip with her chef friend while investigating a bird flu outbreak, and if you think the food-travel-romance and outbreak investigation angles would make for a rather strained marriage, you’re right. The script is frankly a mess, but director Edwin (just Edwin apparently?) is so light on his feet, and the performers are all so engaging, it barely matters. The standout is the incredibly charming Sastrowardoyo, who is allowed to break the fourth wall throughout (“Things like this are why I can’t scratch him off my list”); she’s got a way of shooting the camera a sideways look that is utterly disarming. Who says you can’t have some frothy fun at an international film festival?

“Behind every mind-blowing story are some pretty bad decisions,” notes Surya (Abhimanyu Dasani) in the opening voice-over of The Man Who Feels No Painand the film that follows proves him right. It’s one of the more literal titles of this festival, concerning a young man who can be injured, but he won’t feel it (“it’s a rare medical condition, you can google it later,” he assures us). The resultant movie is, frankly, pretty nuts — 135 minutes of action, slapstick comedy, fantasy, and pathos, all at full blast, full of fight scenes that are simultaneously thrilling and funny (like vintage Jackie Chan), maintaining the childlike heart and spirit of the early passages, set when the hero is of that age. Wild and undisciplined, it’s a lot of movie, and it can get exhausting. But it’s an awfully good time.

*

Before I left, a critic friend advised me to eat a Portuguese egg tart while I was there, and I sought one out the first night, and was promptly hooked. The Portuguese egg tart is a like a tiny custard pie, which you can find just about anywhere for $10 HKD (about a buck and a quarter American). They’re insanely delicious. Towards the end of the week, clearly attuned to our fear/restlessness, a second media tour took us to, among other places, the British bakery where (in true British fashion) they supposedly introduced the egg tart and successfully made it the island’s signature food. Buncha colonialists.

They also took us to a panda pavilion, though only one panda was about. He was adorable:

*

“You probably won’t recognize Macau,” the evil-ish lawyer tells his client, early in Empire Hotel. “But take a walk, it’s… interesting.” I’m not saying that the Macau location shooting is how a movie as leaden as Empire Hotel made it into this festival, but I’m imagining it didn’t hurt. This snapshot of massage parlors and dance halls doesn’t have much plot to speak of; it’s mostly a hang-out movie, though one that seems to forget that even in a hang-out movie, things still need to, like, happen. You can only coast for so long on mood and atmosphere. But hey, the city looks great.

The title of Hiroshi Okuyama’s Jesus isn’t a metaphor — it’s story of a fifth-grade kid who transfers in to a private, religious school, where a crucifix-sized Messiah becomes his first friend. It’s not as absurd or silly as it sounds; there’s a wonderfully specific sincerity to Okuyama’s unassuming style, which lands somewhere between Ozu (lots of long takes in medium-wide shots) and Wes Anderson. And the movie doesn’t rest on its central gimmick; our hero soon makes another, more flesh-and-blood pal, turning Jesus into a lovingly authentic portrait of youth, friendship, and loss. It’s a marvelous little movie.

Zhang Ming’s The Pluto Moment is, to put it mildly, a touch aimless — but it’s intriguing nonetheless, and to give credit where due, that aimlessness is baked into its plotting. Its best critical appraisal may be found in a line of its own dialogue: “I’ve never understood any of your films, but I quite like them.” So no, I’m not quite sure what’s going on with the peculiar mismatches in audio and image in the opening scenes (Is this an alienation device? Is he emphasizing artificiality?), and I’m still not certain where the business with the old book was leading. But I know that there’s a sidebar in the third act that takes the movie over, for the better — it’s a marvelous a little short story about desire and frustration — and I certainly appreciated the inter-festival circularity of this exchange: “Art-house film? Is it the kind of film Zhang Yimou makes?” “We don’t have that kind of money.”

Yimou’s Shadow was the closing night selection for the festival, a mixture of martial arts, mysticism, and gobsmacking images that I’d put among his best works. It showcases a beautifully, fully realized vision: he tells his story in the blacks and whites of traditional ink drawings, in sharp contrast to the sumptuous saturation of something like Curse of the Golden Flower. Of course, those blacks and whites are offset in the back half by the copious splashes of scarlet blood, which he also yields less like a fight choreographer than a visual artist — the battles are as much about patterns on the “page” as they are about hits and bruises, as much about aesthetics as they are about acrobatics. It’s a beautiful blast.

*

A festival as young as IFFAM — this is only is third year — is hard to access. There is clearly money being spent on it, not just to fly in and put up international journalists (hi) but to bring in the likes of Nicolas Cage as “talent ambassador” to make a splash at the opening ceremony and give an extended interview/master class. It does, however, seem to be a resource that the city itself has not yet tuned in to; most of the screening I attended were about half full (including the Cage master class, though the festival website had labeled it “sold out” for several days), and I was often the only occupant of shuttle busses zipping from one venue to the other.

But again, it’s early — they’re still figuring this stuff out. The shift in festival culture took a bit of adjustment; Q&As come before the movie, rather than after, which means the questions tend to be a bit vague and table-setting, rather than in-depth. On the other hand, they also don’t go to the audience for questions, so they’ve got that advantage over Sundance and SXSW. The filmmakers who weren’t in attendance recorded brief, amiable video introductions, often on laptop cameras or iPhones, to introduce their films and thank us for coming, and there was something charming about this handmade touch.

Most of the absent filmmakers were from the west, though Happy New Year, Colin Burstead’s Ben Wheatley and his producer were on hand, and alums, even; their Free Fire was at the festival’s inaugural edition. I like to think that Wheatley, like me, was all about a free trip to China. And, like me, he looks like a guy who can put away some Chinese food. We didn’t get to hang out. Maybe next time.