Saturday, November 28, 2009

SLIFF 2009 Coverage Part 3

Title: 24 City
Director: Jia Zhangke
Country: China
Score: 7.0
Zhangke’s “24 City” is a provocative mix of documentary and fiction, concerned with the relocation of a large Chinese industrial factory to make room for a luxury apartment complex. The details of the factory itself, such as what product it actually makes, is not the director’s interest, but rather the role it has played in the surrounding community and in the lives of enormous workforce. The film consists of a series of interviews with these men and women, about half of which are fake. The tone and craftsmanship are so strong even in the acted segments that viewers will be unlikely to distinguish them, and may not even realize that some parts were fictional. And yet Zhangke doesn’t play the postmodern trickster so much as delve into an impartial emotional truth that lurks behind both documentary and performance.

The Chinese Sixth Generation has been one of my weak spots in exploring Asian film, and so I eagerly embraced a chance to see my first film by the well-regarded Jia Zhangke. He’s a director I clearly need to get in better touch with, as his film evinces such a penetrating curiosity about what makes his country and his countrymen tick. “24 City” is at ease in a sea of rocky history, ugly architecture and disparate national priorities, watching with a misleading detachment the changes in generations, philosophies, personalities, economies and so on. His film can be almost unbearably glacial, but it has wisdom and even wit, notably demonstrated in an interview where a beautiful factory girl (played by Joan Chen of “Little Flower” and “Twin Peaks”) recalls being nicknamed “Little Flower” by her admirers because she looked like Joan Chen. This film has only grown on me upon reflection.

Title: Yella
Director: Christian Petzold
Country: Germany
Score: 7.0
Nina Hoss turns in an award-winning performance as a capable accountant trying to climb her way out of financial straits and an abusive relationship. She accidentally runs into and takes up with an unethical loan assessor and finds herself really enjoying her role as sharp-eyed sidekick. Yet as she extorts money from both shady and relatively honest entrepreneurs alike she’s plagued by something more than a guilty conscious and her violent stalker boyfriend: strange auditory hallucinations with ominous implications.

“Yella” is actually a really well-crafted film if you can ignore the obvious and intrusive ending twist. Why Petzold telegraphs it so openly, or even why he bothers to include it, is a more ponderous mystery than the mystery itself. But that aside, “Yella” manages to be a rare corporate thriller where the characters are worth caring about, especially the rather reserved lead, who manages to blend courage and cynicism into a decidedly complicated and not necessarily sympathetic role. Her conflicted desires to adopt a cold hard exterior while needing an emotional anchor neatly inverses the crisscrossed atmospheres of cold interiors and sun-dappled exteriors.

Title: We Live in Public
Director: Ondi Timoner
Country: USA
Score: 9.0
Timoner ("Dig!") continues her triumphant documentary career with this biopic about Josh Harris, a virtual personification of the information age and our internet culture. In 1993, Harris founded, the first internet television station, whose channel hosts he recruited by staging massive decadent parties reminiscent of interactive art installations. After alienating his own company by adopting a disturbing baby-talking clown persona called ‘Luvvy,' Harris was forced out of his own company. He proceeded to take his millions and build “We Live in Public,” an underground kingdom beneath New York City where he housed more than a hundred experimental subjects with free food, music and living quarters, but under the condition that everyone was subject to humiliating interrogations and constant surveillance (made accessible to all via TVs in each sleeping pod). After the police, thinking they were busting a Y2K doomsday cult, broke in on what had degenerated into a fatigued orgy, Harris abandoned the idea to embark on his next work. This time he wires cameras to cover every inch of his flat and lives with his girlfriend in a 24-7 live internet show with a chatroom for people to comment on his life. The results were unsurprisingly detrimental to everyone involved.

Harris is an undeniably fascinating character to study, a prescient mad-genius type that embodies not just our society’s obsession with technology and exhibitionism, but our increasing immaturity and cult of youth and novelty. Timoner is not quite trusting enough to let her audience ingest the self-evident warnings about our culture that her footage contains and is a little too ready to interpret it for us, but she’s deftly aware of the potential in her subject and handles the stages of his blazing ups and downs with the skill of a consummate storyteller. While “We Live in Public” is by no means scholarly enough to make us feel we are getting the whole story, it captures the zeitgeist of the online boom where the internet was treated like a wild lawless frontier and poorly-adjusted nerds became multi-millionaire celebrities overnight.


Mad Dog said...

Holy CRAP, I want to see We Live in Public right this second

FilmWalrus said...

Yes, I think you'd really find it interesting. If anything, I've downplayed how crazy Josh Harris comes off. I was surprised that I hadn't even heard of the man, but considering that his personality doomed him to failure, maybe it isn't too surprising.