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Berlinale 2015. Correspondences #9

From Berlin, a farcical corporate drama from Peter Kern, a year-spanning doc by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, & a wacky UFO by Jiang Wen.
Daniel Kasman
The Last Summer of the Rich
Dear Adam,
I forgot to thank you for sharing your thoughts on Balikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III, far and away the best new film I've seen at this year's Berlinale. I want to return the favor by telling you about another of my favorite films here, Peter Kern's The Last Summer of the Rich, but unfortunately I'm not sure I can! I didn't get it, I think, I just know I liked it: a harsh, utterly unabashed and farcical corporate drama of immoral family legacy, ruthless nihilism, and the disturbing transference of power. Not ashamed of its low budget, Kern underscores the artificiality of the picture—vaguely reminding me of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's style—to abstract it to field of ideas enacted and visualized through cold melodrama rather than lived and felt through the emotions and sympathy of the drama. The public audience I saw it with responded to this transparency of direction, of politics and gender, with some considerable scoffing and, memorably, by the time the nun who was nursing the evil corporate grandfather starts making out with new female CEO—a no hold's barred new generation woman, reminding me of the many great heroines in German director Dominik Graf's movies—someone behind me sardonically uttered "évidemment." I agree, but probably not in the way he meant; for me the film had a brisk, dry and acerbic directness which makes all it contains hard to ignore. 
An even more bountiful film, Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Over the Years starts as a documentary project on an ailing textile mill in provincial northern Austria, bordering the Czech Republic, a mill founded in 1850 but by 2004 limited to four employees. Geyrhalter employs a mixture of footage of working process, shot in front-facing tableaux similar to Wes Anderson's planimetric compositions (or, more directly related, the films of fellow Austrian Ulrich Seidl), and interviews with the employees, sometimes in the middle of their work, directly facing the camera. But soon the mill goes bankrupt and the project expands in scope and time to touch base with these ex-mill employees through the years 2004 and 2014 as they field the difficulties of unemployment, job searching, having more free time, and aging. As with Richard Linklater's Boyhood, you get to know these people literally across time, seeing characteristics underline themselves through the years, and watching them deal with the general struggle of aging with the specific struggle of existing, earning wages and being happy in this precise place in Austria across this specific time.
Two characters are particularly fascinating: an asocial accountant whose only job has been with the company—for 35 years—who with hooded eyes and taciturn demeanor recounts time and again his hobby of cataloging, first by hand, later by computer, every song in his 14,000 CD collection. This is usually how he explains how he isn't despondent or a changed man due to his unemployment, and somehow maintains a remarkable aura of gentle resignation despite the seeming emptiness of his life across the years. The other, a woman who doesn't seem to age at all during the movie, is a highly productive and active worker who has no trouble getting job after job and working them thoroughly, maintaining an utterly engaged attitude towards her life after this mill has closed.
Alongside are a spectrum of the troubled in health and mind, and over the timespan and through Geyrhalter's interviews we see how those unfortunate and unlucky, as well as the inner-strong, discuss, rationalize, defend, or talk around their current situation, their misfortunate, their past and their emotions. Deflected often by shame or embarrassment or defensiveness sparked when asked about work or happiness, these defenses seem to reveal more than any kind of straight-forward honesty would. Through the film's dedication to enter these people's lives outside the home and then inside it with an appreciation for time spent doing and not-doing—and thinking about doing and not doing—we see the often crushing sadness that can aggregate through time, as well as an unknown subsistence that keeps even the woeful going.
Your mention of Pablo Larraín's The Club called to my mind something I both love and hate about the cinema: the boundless possibility of a film's first reel. In those opening minutes—as in the crepuscular opening of The Club which features a strange household community of reticent men overseen by a woman with a serenely confident smile, features dog training, racing and gambling, and introduces a visual look of coastal village dimness and smoldering repression—so many things seemed evocative and full of potential. But lo and behold, as the story went on the field of possibilities narrowed, and what started as redolent ends as a schematic, by the numbers diagram. How many first minutes of how many bad films are brimful of cinema's ambitions for imagination? How many beginnings suggest a million wonderful middles and endings?
A movie in Competition that willfully thwarts these Second Reel Blues is Jiang Wen's wildly unclassifiable Gone with the Bullets. In anticipation of this great Chinese director's new movie, described as the second part of a trilogy begun with his tremendously successful Let the Bullets Fly (2010), I caught up before the festival with his previous movies: In the Heat of the Sun (1994), Devils on the Doorstep (2000) and The Sun Also Rises (2007). Despite Jiang's fame as an actor in China both in and out of his own movies, these three films had variable trouble with their releases. The first with censorship and last not doing well commercially, and both resembling kinetic, almost post-modern versions of the dense, nostalgic recreations of the past seen from Taiwanese New Wave directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien.  The middle film was a black and white war farce about domestic pressures during Japan's occupation of China in the 1940s and was banned from China. That film's broadness and proximity to comic book imagery suggest Jiang's startling move to Let the Bullet's Fly and now Gone with the Bullets, super plasticized genre pastiches shot in studios and backlots multiple levels removed away from the exaggerated, playful realism of the director's first three pictures.
But with this background—and Shelly Kraicer's absolutely invaluable overview of the director and the politics of Let the Bullets Fly—the director's new film was still a baffling encounter, albeit an exuberant and wacky one. Told in glossy, hard candy colors, the film explodes outward from a real event: a staged beauty pageant of prostitutes in 1920s Shanghai which led to the murder of the winner and the turning of the crime and eventual punishment of the killer into "China's first film," which was a mixture of documentary recordings of the pageant and staged story elements filling in the gaps. That this extraordinary-sounding film is now lost gives Jiang Wen an opportunity to take extravagant creative license, and so he does: like the cinema of Hollywood journeyman William A. Wellman, Gone with the Bullets seems to re-invent itself each reel, beginning, for example, with a Zelig-like mash-up of real and fake archive footage, following that with a parody of The Godfather introducing our hero swindler, conman and eventual killer (played by the director himself!), then the bravura pageant told like a Martin Scorsese set-piece, then a kind of bedroom farce, and then an amazingly imagined opium-fueled race through nighttime Shanghai. And this is all within the film's first third!
But the trouble arrises not from this crazed jostling of tones, genres, and plot-threads, but by the technique underlying all these scenes and especially the lengthy, highly literate and bantering dialogue scenes the director is known for. All of these, all of the film, seems to be operating in an allegorical mode of political and social criticism; that is, using the pre-PRC setting and the brazen artificiality of style to allow the movie to address issues of military buffoonery and licentiousness, the criminal complicity of the media in the events it covers or concocts, the audience (and the people's) bloodlust, the tensions in modern filmmaking, and so on. I could be wrong, but my impression is that the film is always operating simultaneously on two levels, one on the bombastic freewheeling nature of playing with genres, colors, and humor, and then all of this being a dense symbology, an incredibly clever constellation of jostling and interrelated caricatures and critiques. It's all hidden by speed, absurdity and artifice; like nearly all of the director's films, Jiang Wen narrates it immediately admitting to not quite remembering how an event occurred, or cautioning us that he's a liar ("true honesty is impossible," his character memorably said while narrating In the Heat of the Sun). These are not just excuses for exaggeration but an escape route to excuse cryptic criticism and to also allow the invention of wild fantasias within which the filmmaker buries but suggests his point. Suffice to say, it is undoubtably the strangest and perhaps even the riskiest film here in the Berlinale's Competition, a UFO of a film whose press kit replete with historical context does little to suggest its juggled, zany complexities.


BerlinaleBerlinale 2015CorrespondencesFestival CoverageJiang WenNikolaus GeyrhalterPablo LarrainPeter Kern
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