This week, World On Film returns to the work of celebrated Canadian director Atom Egoyan as his most well-known feature takes us through the trauma of loss and beyond to:
The Sweet Hereafter
(1997) Based on the novel by Russell Banks Screenplay & Direction by Atom Egoyan
And the Piper advanced and the children followed,
And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountain-side shut fast.
Did I say, all? No! One was lame,
And could not dance the whole of the way;
And in after years, if you would blame
His sadness, he was used to say, —
`It’s dull in our town since my playmates left!’
(You can find a trailer at the end of the previous post)
When I last ventured into the world of Atom Egoyan, he demonstrated his intimate understanding of human suffering and the gaping void that fills the lives of those who must carry on. The veteran auteur has a particular skill at consciously identifying and realising on screen the various nuances of tragedy and loss, be it due to the death of a loved one or simply the end of a relationship, where a thousand feelings of remorse, anger and longing pull the victim into their own abyss of suffering. The sheer weight of that anguish seems to burden the passage of time until its hands slow down, bereft of mercy and conspiring to prolong the torture far beyond that which seconds, minutes and hours would claim has actually been endured.
The manipulation of time is very much an Egoyan trademark: his films often break up the linear narrative and present the viewer with a collection of events they must rearrange as the film progresses in their efforts to understand what is going on. Exposition is something to be doled out sparingly in order to create suspense and help the viewer understand the sense of disconnect suffered by the characters when tragedy has struck. Effective, non-linear narratives are much harder to create than they look, and as demonstrated in the previous post’s similarly-constructed White Material, when overused, will collapse under their own excessively-clever weight. The latter film perhaps also demonstrates that non-linear narratives will need to be composed of an especially compelling story if the viewer’s intrigue is not to be swapped with frustration and disappointment once they have it fully reassembled.
To ensure his dramatic tile puzzle would be so rewarding, Egoyan turned to American author Russell Banks’s 1991 novel, ‘The Sweet Hereafter’, exploring the aftermath of a devastating bus crash in a small town that kills many of the local children. As the grieving locals struggle to carry on following the disaster, an opportunistic lawyer appears on the scene and attempts to rally them together in a lawsuit against anything that will award the highest amount of damages. Driven by the anguish of their loss, many of the parents agree, with only the crash’s one survivor finding clarity in the changed circumstances of her own life and able therefore to see through the madness and greed around her.
“[Film-maker Atom Egoyan] has a particular skill at consciously identifying and realising on screen the various nuances of tragedy and loss, be it due to the death of a loved one or simply the end of a relationship, where a thousand feelings of remorse, anger and longing pull the victim into their own abyss of suffering.”
The conspiring interloper is practically the subject of a film in and of itself. Far from being the two-dimensional stereotype of the shyster lawyer, Mitchell Stevens (played by Ian Holm) is a web of wretched complexity far within the realm of the pathetic. His daughter, once the apple of his eye, now an unrepentant drug addict, has the final embers of his divorced and solitary dying compassion in her thrall whenever she requires money to feed the habit. Stevens perceives the world around him through this imprisonment and has unsurprisingly strong opinions on the fate of children in modern-day society. It is far easier to blame ‘society’ for his daughter’s loss than accept that the situation may have happened of its own accord. His denial thus forms the solid foundations of his outward persona as a would-be moral crusader. Devoid of an actual cause, his every declaration is akin to Olivier taking to the stage, wrenching the townspeople’s anguish back to the surface and igniting the flames of vengeance. However, not all of the bereft, most notably grieving father Billy (Bruce Greenwood, nowadays more famous for his role in Star Trek) and sole-survivor Nicole (Sarah Polley), buy into the performance. Seeing Stevens’s true nature for what it is, they find themselves confronted with its infectious spread throughout the residents, particularly among those close to them.
Of Holm’s contribution, Olivier may not in fact be the best comparison, since he had a reputation for delivering Shakespearean dialogue with a natural authenticity few have replicated. Ian Holm’s lawyer instantly brings to mind the stage and the actor’s mesmerising presence forces the viewer to pay close attention to his alter-ego’s grotesque nature. However, natural it isn’t, neither in performance nor dialogue, which jars with the down-to-earth, more understated performance of the rest of the cast. Perhaps this is deliberate on the director’s part: Stevens is not only attempting to convince himself that he isn’t merely inflicting his personal problems on innocent parties, but is a performer by trade, as all successful lawyers are apt to be. I remain unconvinced at this point.
Just as the non-linear narrative serves to build up the way in which the chief antagonist is bound by events far removed from the quiet mountain town, so it also paints the equally complex set of circumstances that allow Nicole, a seventeen-year-old girl who has seen her contemporaries die first-hand and had her world turned upside-down, to see through the trauma at the wider issues beyond. Likewise Billy, who loses both his children in the struggle and who acted as mechanic on the vehicle that somehow managed to tumble over a cliff. It is very telling that both in their own ways stand apart from the rest of the community in having suffered great personal losses elsewhere. One has lost a family member, the other is forced to realise that a loved one is not who they have claimed to be, which is a traumatic loss of a different kind. Yet both end up in the same place. Their world is already in ruins, and a collective lawsuit will simply destroy what remains of their society.
“Far from being the two-dimensional stereotype of the shyster lawyer, Mitchell Stevens (played by Ian Holm) is a web of wretched complexity far within the realm of the pathetic.”
The notion of children being taken from their community never to return reminded either director or writer (I am unfamiliar with the novel) of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, whose tale is quoted liberally throughout. Yet I found it rather grating in its continual appearance, and it would be extremely unsubtle (unworthy of Egoyan) were it not especially relevant in the first place. Angered that the council of Hamelin will not properly reimburse him for ridding the town of its rat infestation, the enraged piper bewitches the children of the community with his flautations and spirits them away to a cave for fates unknown which to the villagers, is equivalent to death. The elders are thus forced to examine the price of their selfishness. “If we’ve promised them aught, let us keep our promise,” declares Browning’s moral.
Yet in The Sweet Hereafter, the children are the product of loving parents, and although it is the father of the lame child who could be said not to have kept his promises, her lameness is the product of a different cause – indeed, her lameness is caused by the ‘event’, rather than preventing her from taking part in the event like the others. The amorality tale of the film is not really a re-enactment of what happens when one does not keep their word, and the fable merely a vague contextual similarity that has been shoehorned in to add a layer of subtext. That’s the thing about subtext – by definition, it shouldn’t jar.
Nonetheless, when one strips away the brow-beating nursery rhymes and sledgehammer subtlety of certain performances, they will still be confronted by a highly-arresting study of human coping mechanisms and the way in which the vultures circle in those times of weakness. It holds up, in contrast, our response to the toll the swift death of loved ones takes on the psyche as opposed to the ongoing impact a protracted death of ‘personality’ will continue to eat away at the soul. Left to their own devices, people are by nature equipped to adapt even to the most horrific of changing circumstances. For Banks and Egoyan, the issue is what happens when that process is interrupted – or in the case of some, never allowed to begin – when bereavement is ongoing and the deeply-buried embers of remorse are perpetually fanned. Our ability to move on ultimately defines how we will live in the changed world of the sweet hereafter.
“The problem with the film for me then is that Schnoor, who spends only two weeks in Cape Verde, is very much in the ‘honeymoon’ phase of discovery. He is brought into the island community via his own relatives who are happy to meet him, neighbouring farmers welcome him and everywhere the joie de vivre directed his way is what you would expect of someone who went up to the locals and said “Tell me why you think Cape Verdeans are so awesome!” “
A young man goes in search of his ancestral roots in Cape Verde, hoping to gain insight into their character. But is he really in search of the truth or simply fulfilling a greater need to satisfy his inner cravings for self-identity? Discover Cabo Verde Inside next time on World On Film.
I normally start a post by relating some of the other things I’ve watched during the week. On this occasion, however, it’s quite a long story, dealing as it does with my attending the closing night of the Chungmuro International Film Festival in Seoul. I’ve therefore placed that section below and instead will jump straight into this week’s entry. Representing Armenia therefore is the Armenia-Canada-Germany co-production:
(1993) Written and Directed by Atom Egoyan
Calendar is a slightly unusual film offering, written, filmed, directed, performed and possibly even fixed together with Scotch tape by Atom Egoyan, with this being my first trip into his cinematic world. It is a film that builds subtly, almost voyeuristically, so that the viewer finds themselves delving into the lives of its subjects to a level of prolonged discomfort, which reaches its crescendo as their true nature unfolds, all the while within some wonderful Armenian landscapes.
“It is a film that builds subtly, almost voyeuristically, so that the viewer finds themselves delving into the lives of its subjects to a level of prolonged discomfort”
The plot concerns a Canadian-Armenian photographer returned to the land of his ancestors with the job of photographing his homeland’s most picturesque churches for a forthcoming calendar. He is accompanied by his Armenian wife, acting as translator for the local driver and guide they have hired to provide them with background information on all the sites visited. The unassuming beginning suggests that this is more or less the sum-total of the film, but with every new location, we slowly learn of the deeply fragmented relationship present between the married couple and the cause of the ensuing distance between them. The way in which the film is shot helps to underscore this gulf, with the photographer never seen with his wife in the same place at the same time. Indeed, we only see him some time after the calendar has been printed, while we only see her during the photoshoot, very tellingly only in the company of the driver.
In some ways, Calendar is rather difficult to watch, with the characters becoming more and more grotesque as the narrative progresses, especially that of the photographer, whose mounting jealousy (which could itself be described as a grotesque emotion) is exacerbated further by his unpleasant personality, particularly evident throughout scenes occurring in the present where, still emotionally in orbit around his estranged wife, he ‘auditions’ a long line of potential replacements (something that is not explicitly stated, so other viewers may have a different interpretation). Yet the film is shot in a very simple and effective way, which captures the claustrophobic mood of the piece while highlighting the wonderful natural backdrop. The camera is locked off in every scene, perhaps to mimic the still photography of the calendar itself, forcing the viewer to pay close attention to the tense and unspoken decay of the relationship. The still frame, accompanied by the subjects frequently in mid to long shot, further symbolize the distance felt by the man behind the camera and only serve to heighten his sense of isolation. These sequences are intercut with handicam footage of the characters’ journey through Armenia, and yet despite providing the opportunity for motion, it is no more comforting, with the bluish tint and frequent lack of sound simply another form of isolation.
Egoyan is clearly a skilled photographer, and he lovingly captures the churches with the warmth and texture you would expect to see on a professional calendar. This only serves to heighten the contrasting coldness and unease created by the characters themselves, which Egoyan as the photographer and Arsinee Khanjian as the wife expertly create. It’s certainly not a pleasant cinematic adventure, but anyone who has experienced that phase of a relationship will at least know the horrible awkwardness created between two people who were once close, and the helpless feeling of loss as a result. Unfortunately, drawn as he is, it is well-nigh impossible to sympathize with the protagonist’s predicament, though his wife is by no means a victim.
“[The wonderful back drop] only serves to heighten the contrasting coldness and unease created by the characters themselves “
The deeply personal discomfort, while real, does perhaps ensure Calendar is probably not something I could sit through too often, but the effective minimalist approach on the production side and the jarring juxtaposition of cold, reserved knife-edge drama against the ultimately inconsequential polychromatic background has imbued a strong sense of the Atom Egoyan style. Certainly not a crowd-pleaser, but a director guaranteed to provoke thought. I’m certainly curious enough to explore some of his back catalogue some day.
Last Friday evening, I managed to catch the tail end of the Chungmuro International Film Festival in Seoul. The largest such event in Korea is hands down the Pusan International Film Festival, but CHIFFS is undoubtedly the second-largest, having run this year from September 2-11. Chungmuro was the seat of the local film industry as far back as the early 1960s, and although the major studios have since expanded and relocated to the now wealthier southern district of Gangnam (herein one finds the headquarters of the nation’s conglomerates and the city’s major convention centres), it still symbolizes all things cinema to many. Running since 2007, CHIFFS has been an attempt to keep its legacy alive by screening the festival’s large selection of features at venues in and around the area.
Rain-soaked skies bookended the finale, but the crowd assembled were of a respectable size. Cameramen were falling over themselves to document the arrival of the many self-important political entities, but otherwise, the atmosphere was fairly relaxed. The aged venue was a far cry from the modern, cookie-cutter multiplex behemoths, with absolutely no neon lighting or overpriced snack bar (although having skipped dinner to reach Seoul, this would have been a welcome sight). A high stage that could easily double for the other definition of theatre held the large screen on which we would see the final hurrah for CHIFFS 2010. I had travelled a long way to see this film and was eager to see it begin.
“Cameramen were falling over themselves to document the arrival of the many self-important political entities, but otherwise, the atmosphere was fairly relaxed.”
When the dithering crowd made little effort to actually sit down, a helpful announcer reminded them that everyone was keen to get the evening’s entertainment underway. This seemed to prompt people into action, and they at last managed to settle into their high-backed cushioned wooden seats – volunteers would excitedly relocate anyone who had unhelpfully chosen the side aisles to the centre, so as to help maintain the illusion of a full house. At last, the lights dimmed and a video retrospective hurriedly skimmed through the highlights of the last week-and-a-half. The helpful alacrity was then halted, as the house once again lit up and a glittering woman took the stage –our host for the evening.
One of the criticisms of many Korean events that purport to be international is the lazy lack of proper bilingualism. Even as I write, the English version of the CHIFFS website (http://www.chiffs.kr/eng/main.asp) is still yet to be finished and contains only about 10% of the information found on the Korean site – much of that information crucial, such as a schedule of events and explanations as to precisely how one can buy tickets. This half-hearted approach was in evidence that final evening, as the host would very helpfully give a cursory translation of her far more animated Korean pronouncements, as though having to relate her words in another language was an unnecessary evil. She would then, in English, introduce one of the aforementioned dignitaries to the stage, who would then proceed to give what could have been a brief history of the Sydney Mardis Gras, for it was not translated. This continued through several speech-makers: introduction in English, speech in Korean. I dutifully clapped at the appropriate moment, beginning to wonder if the film had actually been subtitled as advertised.
The film of course, was not in any danger of starting anytime soon. Next to appear on stage, director Tony Chan, who, in muted tones, explained the thinking behind his brand new epic, Hot Summer Days – a U.S-China-Hong Kong extravaganza. In the story, Hong Kong, thanks to global warming, is experiencing its hottest summer ever, with citizens regularly collapsing to the ground in exhaustion and ice-cream available only to the highest bidder. Anyone familiar with interviews conducted on local television with someone who only speaks English would have recognised the odd spectacle now before us: the host confidently asked her questions in Korean, an interpreter would quickly whisper a translation into Chan’s ear, he would then address the crowd in English, followed by the host providing a summary in Korean. It was difficult not to think of the Sooty Show during the exchange. “What’s that, Sooty? Why did I make a film about the hottest summer ever? Izzy wizzy, let’s get busy?”
Chan’s answer to this question, meanwhile, seemed to sum up the amount of intellectualising he had put into the script. “Well, uh, I wrote the film in the middle of Winter, and it was really cold. So I didn’t want to write a film about Winter and it just came to me. Of course, we didn’t actually have 100 days of Summer to shoot, and that was the most difficult part.” The warning bells were ringing, but it was too late. I was committed by this point no matter what happened. Nonetheless, I was still upbeat about the whole thing, and with the silliness of the interview over, I sat back in anticipation. Then the singers arrived.
“I was still upbeat about the whole thing, and with the silliness of the interview over, I sat back in anticipation. Then the singers arrived.”
Although I couldn’t see any obvious connection to the festival with Josh Groban’s motivational ‘You Raise Me Up’, the opera-capable male quartet who brought it to life certainly delivered a very capable rendition. It was upbeat, after all, and that at least was the intended spirit of the event. Which doesn’t explain the next two barbershop quartet showtunes, mercifully sang in Korean, thus obscuring their saccharine lyrics. Finally, the mystifying musical entertainment was over and an intermission was called – presumably to give people time to check that they’d come to the right place. A resigned 10 minutes passed and then, mercifully, Hot Summer Days finally rolled.
And it was one of the most awful, syrupy pieces of cinematic mush I’ve ever been forced to endure. A romance-comedy, it featured the courtship and mishaps of a series of couples across Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. Romance comedies typically rely on a string of improbable coincidences to ensure both conflict and happy endings, but Tony Chan clearly felt that these alone were enough to construct a film – that and the presence of the usual HK film stars, such as Nicholas Tse and Jacky Cheung. I won’t even bother to relate the involvement of the talking goldfish. It was like the worst excesses of the genre, only super-concentrated, and I was not the only viewer present to writhe in my seat as, with every passing minute, Chan blew raspberries at improbability, laying down track after track of cliché and cornball nonsense until the credits rolled – 90 minutes after the debacle had begun. If you weren’t diabetic going in, you certainly were going out.
Several minutes later, one of my companions was heard to wonder in hushed tones how something like this had ever been selected for the closing ceremony. The indifferent rain continued to hurl itself at the ground as he puffed away thoughtfully on a cigarette. Nonetheless, we all agreed that it had been worth coming. Exploration is what film festivals are all about. Hopefully the next adventure will be a little more savoury. And without a barbershop quartet.
“It was one of the most awful, syrupy pieces of cinematic mush I’ve ever been forced to endure.”
Hell on earth: imprisoned in the wilds of 19th Century Tasmania, a group of repeat-offenders make a desperate bid for escape across one of the world’s most unforgiving landscapes – a realm where even the Aboriginal natives can’t survive. A true story from Australia’s dark convict past unfolds in the uncompromising 2009 epic, Van Diemen’s Land. The official trailer appears below: