Reviews From PFA’s Spring Quarter 2022

by on February 28, 2022

"Chinese Portrait"

The day before the Pacific Film Archive (hereafter “PFA”) was forced to temporarily shut down thanks to the Bay Area’s COVID outbreak, it had screened Souleymane Cisse’s Cannes Award winning film “Brightness.”  Now that film serves as the climax of the “Souleymane Cisse” film series, a long overdue tribute to the Malian filmmaker.

“Brightness”’ plot draws from creation myths and oral histories of Western Africa’s Mande empires.  Young seer Nianankoro and his mother have been fleeing powerful Komo magician Soma for a decade.  The older man is determined to prevent the fulfillment of a vision of his son Nianankoro causing his death by preemptively striking first.  The young magician’s only hope is to reach his paternal uncle Djigui, who might provide the knowledge he needs to fight his father.  But Soma’s relentlessness knows no bounds thanks to aid from a magic pylon which breaks all barriers blocking the father’s path.

Elements of “Brightness”’ story will sound familiar to Western audiences, such as the bits about prophecies, magic, and father-son conflict.  However, similarity of story elements doesn’t necessarily translate to similarity of story treatment.  The use of magic, for example, is not rendered as a Western-style special effects laden spectacle.  Instead, the exercise of mystical powers remain firmly in the mundane, with spells being cast by spitting and the magic pylon being a wrapped pole carried by two bearers.

Cisse’s aesthetic approach will admittedly confuse unprepared Western audiences.  But then the director primarily made “Brightness” for fellow Malians.  “Brightness” may open with titles explaining such basic mythic touchstones as the magic pylon Kolonkalanni and the vulture as a symbol of space and knowledge.  However, once those titles end, the non-Malian viewer must decode the film’s deeper meanings on their own.  Cisse’s film can thus be called an example of anti-ethnographic filmmaking.

One important form of viewer decoding concerns the rites and symbols that play significant roles in “Brightness”’ action.  Some of them can be quickly understood, such as a type of battle between two warriors from different tribes involving goat-like head-butting.  But who is the boy often seen bringing animals to a statue of a man holding a Kore wing?  Does he  represent the generations yet to come praying to the gods?  Or does he stand in for ordinary people forced to be bystanders to this battle between father and son magicians?

Completely forcing Western storytelling tropes such as hero vs. villain or individual vs. community tropes would be another viewer mistake.  Cisse’s film makes only partial nods to such tropes.  Soma definitely counts as a villain for exploiting his mystical powers for individual gain rather than helping the community.  Yet Nianankoro hardly qualifies as a full-fledged opponent or even an altruist.  His direct fighting with Soma only occurs when further alternatives are unavailable.  His aiding Fula king Rouma Boli repel invaders threatening the Fula could be seen as a self-interested way of showing the king he’s not an enemy.  Finally, he ruins Rouma Boli’s marriage by failing to resist the temptation to sleep with the king’s wife Attu.

Nor will happy endings be found in Cisse’s film.  The land where Soma and Nianankoro engage in final battle becomes a wasteland by the end of the fight.  Nianankoro and Attu may have children, but they are fated to become slaves.  These future children will eventually have a good life, but that event occurs at some indeterminate point in the future.

“Brightness” ends up being an enigmatic mythic recounting of the events that led to the world as we know it today.

***

The “Chinese Portraits” program is both a PFA film series and a series of multinational panel discussions on contemporary China.  One of the selections on the film side of the program is Wang Xiaoshuai’s (“Beijing Bicycle”) documentary “Chinese Portrait.”

Wang’s film can be described quite simply.  It consists of 60 composed shots captured across a period of ten years in various parts of China.  In each shot, at least one generally still figure can be noticed.  The rest of the shot is filled with figures or things in various states of motion.  The moving people or objects can be anything from the wind rustling a field of tall grass to workers leaving a shift.  Even the supposedly still center of a shot might spit to one side or otherwise shuffle their feet.

The effect of this set-up is to spur the viewer to notice more than a particular image’s foreground.  They’re invitations to viewers to immerse themselves in the worlds the image’s still centers are a part of.  The stillness of two seamstresses in a sewing factory draws attention to the speedy toil of their fellow factory workers.  Or beyond the silent pensioner who stares at the camera, the viewer will notice the buzz of conversations behind him as well as have a sense of the length of the street past him.

But the unexpected role played by each shot’s still figures is to deny the viewer the power of the surrogate voyeur.  Observing and judging people feels easier if the observed lack  knowledge or apparent awareness of the observer’s presence.  The silent figures staring out from the screen pings the viewer’s self-consciousness.  Rationalizations about these staring figures being preserved images from the past incapable of independent thought may come up.  What will torment such would-be voyeurs is not knowing exactly what these silent subjects thought of their prospective viewers when Wang’s camera captured their images.

The subjects Wang chooses to focus on generally come from the lower and middle classes.  They include miners waiting for a cart to come out of the mine, a family having a meal, Muslim men at a mosque praying, and even dancers practicing in a statue-filled park.  The closest the film comes to an upper class subject might be a man with mirror sunglasses, a flashy watch, and a fanny pack.  Then again, a beach has a way of psychologically democratizing people with shared clotheslessness.  Nor is there any certainty that the objects the supposed upper class man wears are actual name brands rather than knockoffs.

Wang does occasionally break up his film’s visual set-up.   He includes shots of non-human subjects such as two horses grooming each other or a field of tall grass waving in the wind.  Even a shot of a building being demolished draws the viewer’s eye not to the operator of the machine weakening a building’s supporting pillar, but the building in the moments before its collapse.

For a film whose structure sounds like a potential exercise in visual tedium, “Chinese Portrait” surprises the viewer by showing the rich variety of life in contemporary China.  Even a shot showing a heavily smoggy Chinese city street feels like a refreshing moment of visual candor.

Incidentally, “Chinese Portrait” also plays as part of the “Documentary Voices” film series.

***

Another program in PFA’s “Documentary Voices” film series sees the return of avant-garde documentarian Lynne Sachs to the SF Bay Area.  Not only will Sachs be delivering the 6th annual Les Blank Lecture, but there will be a program of three of her short films.  Two of these shorts are “And Then We Marched” and “The Washing Society.”

“And Then We Marched,” the briefer film, rebukes those who dismissed Greta Thunberg and other children willing to get out and protest for a better world.  Sachs’ subject is Sophie D., a little girl who joined her mother on the first Women’s March in 2017.  Neither Sophie nor Sachs appears on screen.  Instead, the footage on screen comes from not only the first Women’s March but a suffragette march from the early 20th century and a women’s liberation march from the 1960s or 1970s.  Sachs’ choice not only avoids viewer concerns about the camera lens intimidating the unseen little girl’s candor but underscores the footage’s point that the Women’s March is part of the long political tradition of women publicly fighting for their rights.

Sophie herself brings to the film the individual passion that might not be apparent in the footage of masses of people marching.  Her mixed emotions of happiness and excitement plus a little fear feels more real than if she displayed unquestioned certainty.  But the viewer can’t help but smile at the little girl who notes that it’s not every day that she gets to go out onto the street and yell about equal rights.

By comparison, “The Washing Society,” a film Sachs co-directed with Lizzie Olesker, stretches what the documentary can do.  Yes, there are interviews with and footage of former and present washerwomen as well as generous quotes from a historic text.  But the film also contains a semi-elegiac series of laundromat images, a dance on top of a bank of commercial washers and dryers, and even a ghost.

The primary setting of the Sachs and Olesker short is the New York City neighborhood laundromat.  When the project was started , there were approximately 2500 such facilities around the city.  Footage of these clothes cleaning places show them to be usable despite having a semi-seedy appearance thanks to their lightly damaged signs.  Yet if these places may not be paragons of cleanliness and order, it’s clear they’re part of their respective neighborhood’s character.

Wing Hung Ho, the only male washer person seen in the film, has worked at the Broome Street laundromat for 16 years.  In that time, he’s seen the neighborhood demographics change from a mostly Chinese area to one offering a more diversified selection of races.  The one thing that hasn’t changed has been the work hours, which have remained 7:00 AM to 7:30 PM daily.

This dynamic of long hours, hard work, and low pay is one that has dominated the laundry person workforce for decades.  A day’s work may consist of processing 25-26 bags of laundry while a week’s work may involve handling 4,000 pieces of laundry.  Interviewee Lula B. Holloway remembers when regular pay for her work stayed $5/hour for years before bumping up to the princely $7.50/hour when she neared retirement.  It’s the quote from the Atlanta Washing Society to the city’s Mayor in 1881 that puts in perspective just how long the problem of bad labor practices has existed in this industry.

Unconcealed customer racism also turns out to be another problem in laundry work, given that non-white women usually wind up doing this job.  The reasons for taking this grueling low paying work are left vague by several of the women interviewed.  There are mentions of a lack of work at home or a dangerous existence where they were from.  Olesker and Sachs choose not to press for details, which the reasonable viewer respects.

What is clear in some liberatory dance sequences late in the film is that washing other peoples’ clothing is not one of those jobs that the workers “enjoy” doing.  Seeing the performers playing washerwomen dance on top of a bank of washing machines or letting the dirty clothes given to them land on playground pavement in graceless heaps feels like a species of emotional revenge.

“The Washing Society” ends on a couple of notes of melancholy change.  Several of the places captured in the film have now shuttered.  An app is being developed to put further distance between the customer and the actual human being who does the hard and sometimes gross work.  Those bits of information make the film’s final image of a spinning washing or drying machine drum’s interior take on the metaphorical aspect of a human hamster wheel.

***

One of the high profile film series in PFA’s Spring Quarter is “Wayne Wang In Person,” a tribute to the Bay Area film director whose inspiration for becoming a filmmaker came from attending PFA public screenings as a student.  Wang will appear in person for each of the screenings in the series.  The film that promises to spark one of the series’ livelier conversations will be the director’s cut restoration of Wang’s film “Life Is Cheap…But Toilet Paper Is Expensive.”

The casual viewer would not think the cinematic razzing of racist genre storytelling tropes could cause problems.  After all, Western cultural “superiority” does not get directly challenged or criticized in the film.  And Wang’s setup does basically follow the trope of “Westerner goes to non-Western part of the world and has adventures.”  What made Wang’s treatment of this trope unique is his non-touristy treatment of his birthplace spiced with touches of Jean-Luc Godard and John Waters.

An unnamed Westerner (Spencer Nakasako) has come to pre-handover Hong Kong to deliver an important briefcase to Big Boss Lo.  It’s not clear what’s inside the briefcase, but the contents must be important because it has a handcuff attached to the handle.  The only trouble is, things large and small keep popping up to keep the delivery from being completed.

Nakasako’s character sees himself as the hero of his own story.  But Wang shows him to be a clueless fool.  Hearing life in pre-handover Hong Kong described as the Wild West, the Narrator’s version of appropriate dress for the visit is cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat.  More importantly, the delivery of the briefcase turns out to be a McGuffin.  Alfred Hitchcock coined the term “McGuffin” to describe something that’s supposedly important to a story yet turns out to be unimportant in reality.

The real goal of Wang’s film is to flip the script on the aforementioned “Westerner in non-Western setting” trope.  The Hong Kong locals are not there to help the film’s Westerner complete his delivery and otherwise aid his personal growth.  Instead, they have their own individual stories and viewpoints that are richer and independent of the stereotypical cliches that seem to constitute the Westerner’s thought processes.  A supposedly blind seller of knockoff Rolex watches summarizes the anxieties of Hong Kong’s residents by referring to them as five million sitting ducks.  Kitty the hooker is less a vessel of exotic sex appeal and more somebody who’s had to service some skeezy johns.  A duck butcher’s broken English doesn’t deter the truth of a summary of life in Hong Kong that gives the film its darkly humorous title.

What particularly damns the unnamed Narrator is his failure to truly understand and appreciate the more emotionally complex characters he encounters.  There’s the pianist who takes an extreme step to escape doing a forced performance.  An underling of Big Boss Lo who used to be a Red Guard has to live with his betraying his grandmother to the Chinese authorities.  And Money (Cora Miao), the supposed femme fatale nicknamed “Chopping Block,” maintains a facade of male sexual allure to hide her real feelings.

Wang’s Hong Kong is not the playground for Westerners that the Narrator thinks it is, nice views notwithstanding.  His camera captures the quotidian realities of life in the city he grew up in without glamorizing it.  Well-appointed banquet rooms may be shown, but a market with live ducks and chickens will be seen as well.  An apparent racing dog gets trained on a low rent treadmill.  The streets are so insanely planned that it doesn’t seem a stretch for a taxi driver to have to drink heavily to do his job.

The street chase that proves to be one of the high points of Wang’s film may sound simple enough.  It’s the Narrator’s foot pursuit of a pair of easily distinguishable guys who constantly remain a few steps ahead of him.  Yet its length and the places it goes to, from crowded marketplaces to the common areas of apartment buildings, cumulatively makes the whole chase almost hallucinogenic.  The event that ends the chase is one that leads to a nice visual joke for Cantonese speakers.  The narrator who’s a gweilo in spirit becomes one in appearance.

But the biggest joke at the Narrator’s expense comes when he thinks he’s being Money’s (spiritually white) savior.  Yet the punishment that Big Boss Lo cooks up for the Narrator (and which probably resulted in the film’s “X” rating) is an unforgettable bit of humiliation involving a very familiar insult.  Obviously that insult will not be spoiled here.  But it does lead to a wonderfully ironic use of Elmer Bernstein’s classic theme for “The Magnificent Seven.”

(“Brightness” plays April 17, 2022 at 7 PM.  “Chinese Portrait” plays as part of both the “Chinese Portraits” and “Documentary Voices” programs on March 9 at 7 PM.  “And Then We Marched” and “The Washing Society” play on April 6, 2022 at 7 PM.  “Life Is Cheap…But Toilet Paper Is Expensive” plays March 26, 2022 at 7 PM.

All screenings take place at the Pacific Film Archive (2155 Center Street, Berkeley).  For further information about these films and to order tickets, go here.)

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